Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Getting Paid Sick Time Helps Everyone

By Rosemary Harris Lytle

For most Americans, the Fourth of July is a day for fireworks, concerts, parades and all manner of patriotic displays. It's as American as barbeque ribs and apple pie, reminding us of freedom, justice, community, hard work and family values; the shared ideals that define us as a nation.

While many enjoyed a paid day off for the holiday, not everyone was so fortunate. Paid days off from work are rare. When it's a holiday, at least the time off is taken for fun, but when employees need time off for illness or caregiving, even fewer can afford it.

We all occasionally need time off from work to share the responsibility for our family's health. But nearly 60 million American workers lack a single paid sick day in which to care for themselves when occasional illness strikes. Nearly 100 million lack a paid sick day to care for an ill child.

Those who must go to work sick, not only jeopardize their own well being, they threaten the public health. In early June, the World Health Organization announced that the world is officially in the grip of a global H1N1 swine flu pandemic, the first such flu pandemic in 40 years. In light of the U.S. outbreak, President Barack Obama and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously stated that those experiencing flu symptoms should stay home from school and work, see a doctor and avoid public contact until they recover. But American workers without paid sick days cannot stay home because they risk losing their jobs. This is no inconsequential threat when you consider the impact on the public health.

And neither is it inconsequential when you consider the impact of the lack of paid sick days on working families generally -- especially in these trying economic times.

Consider Asha C., a young mother in Milwaukee, Wis.

As a temporary hire at the company where she worked, Asha had no paid sick days and could be fired for missing work -- even if she or her children were ill. One day, she was sick and called-in to say that she would be late that day. Asha came to work one hour late. Two men escorted her to a large meeting room. They informed her that she was fired. The employer's actions not only caused her to lose her job but to miss payment of her rent and other household bills. It took a while for Asha to find another job. The second, like the first, included no paid sick days.

This kind of workplace policy seems unfathomable; outdated. It's why a recently introduced proposal in Congress is designed to allow Americans to earn paid sick time so that they can take care of their own and their family's health needs. Care-giving responsibilities can be one of the biggest hurdles working families face in their quest to realize the American dream of economic self-sufficiency. But for these Americans, the lack of this basic labor standard presents unconscionable choices: whether to stay home and get better or go to work to keep from losing a job.

Its stories like Asha's that adds urgency to the need for paid sick time.

This is about working families. This is also about staying competitive as a nation in the global economy. Nineteen of the 20 most competitive countries in the world guarantee paid sick days -- and the United States is the odd one out. As Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who recently introduced the proposal in Congress noted, "What does it say when Lesotho and Papua New Guinea are implementing paid sick days to give their businesses and their entire nation a competitive edge, yet America still does not get it?"

It's great to celebrate our country’s history and values. But for the celebrating to be truly authentic, every American worker must have paid sick days.
Harris Lytle is public relations coordinator of 9to5, National Association of Working Women
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09


By Raymond R. Ratke

Imagine if you could no longer care for your children and that they had to leave your home and be separated from one another.

You would want your kids to be in a safe home, close to school and friends, with plenty of support as they adjust to a new family. But for nearly 7,000 children in Virginia’s foster care system who have been separated from their families, these things have never been guaranteed.

Virginia recently launched the Virginia Children’s Services System Transformation to make the kind of future that all parents want for their children a bit more certain for every child. First Lady Anne Holton’s For Keeps initiative started Virginia’s child welfare practices on the right road, and in December 2007 we began an intensive change in the way we provide effective help for at-risk children and their families.

Alex and Jacob (not their real names), for example, entered foster care in 2006 as infants when both parents were incarcerated. Two years later, the parents were due to be released and everyone was nervous. “When my kids left me, they were babies and I knew how to do babies,” the mother said. “Now they are toddlers and I don’t know how to be their parent anymore.”

The local department of social services worked out a program of intensive in-home services and visits for this family, helping to establish routine and parenting direction. Much-needed services were available around the clock. Alex and Jacob went home last Christmas and everyone is doing well with follow-up care. Individualized plans such as Alex and Jacob’s are an important measure for avoiding more emotionally and financially expensive interventions down the road. Virginia is better equipped and more committed to providing this assistance than we have ever been – and families are staying united because of it.

The Transformation works to assure wherever possible that children are moved into permanent family arrangements; that more kids are placed with relatives and foster parents; and that community-based services are in place to help keep families together. Thirteen pilot localities across the state, including Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield, were among the first to work toward these goals. A variety of strategies and national best practices are already impacting children and families across Virginia.

These include statewide staff training based on a common set of values; recruiting, developing and supporting families for children like Alex and Jacob; managing by data on the actual families, not by anecdote; giving stronger voices to the children and families themselves; and developing a community-based continuum of care for each child.

Maria (not her real name) came to us as a 15-year-old mother with a new baby and no means of support. She spoke only Spanish, and we had no available Spanish-speaking foster families. It appeared that she would have to be placed in a group home away from her community. Unfortunately, a nurturing family environment often does not come along with the higher price tag of such residential care. Instead, a local social worker recalled a middle school Spanish teacher, living with her mom, who had completed training to become a midwife and was open to being a foster mother. After much hard work and many phone calls the social worker secured an apartment, furniture, food and other necessities while this new family established itself.

This kind of detailed approach is proving effective. Richmond’s Department of Social Services has reduced the number of young people in residential facilities and group homes by 37 percent. Total foster care numbers across the Commonwealth are down 8 percent over the last year. Henrico has lowered the number of young people in residential and group homes by 45 percent, while Chesterfield’s total is down an astonishing 58 percent. The Transformation is growing statewide, with more localities improving outcomes for children and families.

Large system reform requires strong public and private partnerships, time and commitment. Yes, we are still at the beginning stages and there are challenges to overcome. But, through sustained leadership, innovative strategies and continued partnerships, we can ensure that all Virginia children will be safe and have a life with a family that cares for them and be on the road to success as an adult.
Raymond R. Ratke is the special advisor to Secretary of Health and Human Resources Marilyn B. Tavenner for Children’s Services for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Virginia Forum. 6/09


By Sarah Wilhelm

While Roe v Wade ensures that abortion is legal in every state, the reality of abortion access today is increasingly dependent upon a woman’s socioeconomic status and geographic location. The average cost of an abortion for a woman up to 12 weeks pregnant is $450 to $600 in the Northwest region, and costs increase markedly after 12 weeks.

The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, ended the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion, except when the woman’s life would be endangered by a full-term pregnancy, or in cases of rape or incest. As the debate about the direction of health care reform takes off, the Obama administration should recognize the critical importance of repealing this fundamental barrier to women’s access to comprehensive health care.

Fortunately, Washington uses its own funds to cover the cost of abortion procedures for women who qualify for Medicaid. However, women living in neighboring states of Idaho and Oregon have limited government assistance for the cost of their procedures.

Oregon does cover abortion procedures through its Oregon Health Plan (OHP) program; however, the program has seen significant budget cuts over the past year making it difficult for women to receive OHP funding for abortion in a timely manner.

Idaho does not use state funds to cover abortion, except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest. Idaho even bans private insurance from covering abortion (except in cases of life endangerment) without payment of an additional premium.

Women in rural Washington, Oregon, and much of Idaho also experience limited access to abortion providers. In fact, it is not possible to get an abortion past 14 weeks in the state of Idaho. These women are faced with the added time and expense of travel to get an abortion.

And this was before the economic crisis hit.

With rising unemployment and cuts in social services added to the already challenging landscape of abortion access in the Pacific Northwest, increasing numbers of women experiencing an unintended pregnancy are finding themselves in an economic crisis of their own.

Between 1994 and 2001, the rate of unintended pregnancy increased by 29 percent among U.S. women whose income was below the poverty line, while it decreased 20 percent among women with incomes at least twice the federal poverty level.

During this time, state level restrictions to abortion access, from dwindling numbers of abortion providers particularly in rural areas, to state budget shortfalls leading to cuts in Medicaid funding (as in the case of Oregon), have left many poor women with few options when faced with an unintended pregnancy.

Private abortion funds seek to fill some of the gaps left by inadequate state laws and funding by providing women with some or all of the funds needed to obtain an abortion.

The Community Abortion Information and Resource (CAIR) Project is an all-volunteer regional organization that provides abortion funding and hotline support to women in Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon. The fund empowers women in need to be able to afford abortions and other associated costs, such as travel and childcare. In 2007, the CAIR Project gave $25,700 to women in need -- leveraging the $171,500 the women were able to contribute to the cost of their procedures themselves.

Since 1999, the CAIR Project has worked tirelessly to break down financial barriers to abortion and improve reproductive health care access for all women. As the gap between rich and poor in our country continues to widen, each year we find that the number of women who require our services increases.

Much of this increased need is a result of a dramatic rise in the number of women calling us from Oregon. In 2005, only 27 percent of our clients were from Oregon; but in 2007, Oregon women made up 48 percent of the women we serve. The drastic cuts to Oregon’s Medicaid funding have led to virtually no new Medicaid enrollments and indefinite processing times for applications. As these women wait, the cost of their abortion and their financial stress rise. Compounding the financial difficulty facing Oregon’s women, the state’s unemployment rate soared above the national average to 12 percent in April 2009.

As unemployment continues to rise while social services are being slashed in our region, we expect the need for our services will continue to increase. While it is critical that we continue to engage in legal and political advocacy to improve state and national policies around abortion and reproductive health, we must also offer support to those who are in need of help now and can’t wait.
Wilhelm is a board member of Community Abortion Information and Resource (CAIR) Project. The CAIR Project seeks to help meet the needs of these women while also drawing attention to the policies and systems that have left them unable to afford the choice that Roe v Wade assures them.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Washington Forum. 6/09


By Jennifer Rogers, MPH

I recently read an article about Bisphenol-A (BPA) that eerily reminded me of the movie, “Thank You for Smoking.” In the movie, the “merchants of death” or MOD Squad, as they call themselves, are lobbyists for the alcohol, gun, and tobacco industries and meet for lunch while plotting to keep vital information about the harmful health effects of their products out of the hands of the public. And they do so with great success, not to mention, great profit.

What does this have to do with BPA? A recent Washington Post article said a group of chemical industry lobbyists met at the exclusive Washington, DC Cosmos Club to develop a public relations strategy to “tamp down public concerns” around the safety of BPA. BPA is a chemical that has been linked to breast cancer, testicular cancer, low sperm count, miscarriage and other reproductive problems. In fact, it has already been banned in Minnesota and Chicago. The BPA lobbyists agreed to use many of the same strategies used in the 1990s to create doubt around the harmful health effects of tobacco. As the meeting minutes reflected, industry representatives mentioned using fear tactics to dissuade people from choosing BPA-free packaging. They floated messages suggesting that people will no longer be able to buy cheaper canned goods, or that they will lose access to baby food. Furthermore, attendees said they doubted they could find a scientist to serve as a spokesman for BPA, instead deciding to use a young pregnant woman as their “holy grail.” Like Joe Camel or the Marlboro Man, the new “MOD Squad” is looking for ways to put a pleasant face on dangerous product. They can do this because there is so little oversight from any federal agency.

As a health advocate and a consumer, I find this news incredibly disturbing. BPA is just the tip of the iceberg--there are many more chemicals like BPA that pose a danger to our health. Although we have made great strides in some aspects of our health, when it comes to our reproductive health there are some startling trends. Sperm counts have decreased by about 50 percent in many industrialized regions, younger women are reporting difficulty conceiving, and more babies are born premature. One of the most common birth defects today is malformations of male reproductive organs. For the most part, we do not know exactly why this is happening, but evidence suggests that something in our environment is a cause.

Yet, it turns out that much of the responsibility of protecting ourselves and our kids from harmful chemicals is not with the EPA or the FDA, but instead our shoulders. It is particularly disturbing that the fear tactics used target low-income communities that often buy canned foods because they lack healthier options. History shows us that the worst environmental impacts on health have been inflicted upon communities traditionally lacking resources – low income communities and communities of color. Chemical companies should not be scaring us into no longer having access to the food we may rely on to make ends meet. Instead, we should have agencies that oversee them and require them to remove the harmful chemicals out of the food that they sell.

Under current law, chemicals do not have to be proven safe to get on or stay on the market. Currently, more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S. are presumed safe and more than 700 new chemicals are introduced into our environment each year. Companies should have the responsibility to test their products before they enter the market just as they do for drugs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been tasked with the simple yet profound charge “to protect human health and the environment.” But EPA lacks the tools. We must overhaul the chemical regulatory process – something that hasn’t been undertaken in over 30 years. We need reform that protects both public health and the environment, and places the responsibility on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of their products. This is a commonsense solution and long overdue.

Unless we want to risk becoming like another recent film -- the sad, sterile world depicted in Wall-E -- rigorous and comprehensive testing of the chemicals in our environment is an absolute necessity. At the very least, we need to avoid the sequel, “Thank You for Ingesting Poison.”
Rogers is acting executive director for the Reproductive Health Technologies Project.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09


By Lynn Evans

Word is that Harvard Professor Dr. Atul Gawande’s article on McAllen, Texas, is required reading in the White House. Published in the June 1, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, the Boston surgeon asks why McAllen’s health care costs are the second highest health care costs in the nation, behind Miami. His conclusions have much to teach us about the problems with America’s health care system today.

First, a little background. This year, 64.4 million Americans who are too young for Medicare will spend more than 10 percent of their pre-tax income on health care and health insurance. And that percentage is growing. Buying health insurance for their families is rapidly becoming too expensive for middle-income families, and simply impossible for low-income families. Mississippi’s low median family income makes this problem even more difficult. At 43 percent, Mississippi has the lowest percentage of children covered by private insurance, and the highest percentage of children eligible for Medicaid and CHIP at 89 percent.

Although Mississippi Medicaid’s health care costs for children are among the lowest in the country – about $1,800 each – Medicaid costs for adults are among the highest at almost $8,000. What Dr. Gawande found in McAllen has some clues as to why that might be.

McAllen was not always the high health care cost capital it is today. In 1992, costs were at the national average. What changed, according to McAllen doctors themselves, was overutilization. In McAllen’s case, competition among medical providers did not provide better and less expensive care but rather more expensive and not necessarily better care. According to one surgeon, doctors were no longer paid to think about what may be going on with their patients but were financially rewarded for tests and procedures. An analysis of commercial insurance claims confirmed the McAllen surgeon’s diagnosis; patients in McAllen got more hospital treatments and tests, more surgery, and “more of pretty much everything,” Gawande said.

It turns out that more is not necessarily better for patients. In fact, it seems to be worse. According to a Dartmouth study, patients in high-cost areas around the country were less likely to receive preventive services like flu and pneumonia vaccines, waited longer to receive medical care, and were less likely to have a medical home. “They got more of the stuff that cost more, but not more of what they needed,” Gawande explained.

In comparison, Rochester, Minnesota – home of the Mayo Clinic – has lower health care costs than the national average and a significantly higher quality of care. The Mayo Clinic uses a collaborative model where health care leaders are rewarded for focusing on what is best for patients and sharing expertise, rather than what is the most cost-productive business model. Their example of lessening financial incentives for individual physicians and taking collective responsibility for improving quality of care has been replicated in other cities around the nation such as Durham, North Carolina and Seattle, Washington. These medical centers are centered on not-for-profit institutions. All have higher quality of care and lower costs than the national average.

Community collaboration and accountability are the keys to providing a better quality of health care at a lower cost nationwide. Unfortunately, our current system of payments – private as well as government insurers – does not reward reducing unnecessary procedures, covering everyone, and improving the quality of patient outcomes. The national debate about access to health care – not to mention the Mississippi debate about Medicaid – must incorporate a discussion about how to promote more Mayo Clinics and fewer McAllens.
Evans is a Jackson health care activist and writer.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Mississippi Forum 6/09

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Torturing the Rule of Law

By Shahid Buttar

Sixty years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson left Washington to pursue what he later called “the most important, enduring, and constructive work of [his] life”: prosecuting international war crimes committed during WWII. Justice Jackson helped usher in a new international regime that promised to help deter human rights abuses.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s achievements have proven less enduring than he hoped. Our nation continues to undermine international law by sweeping torture under the rug, with serious implications going forward.
The Nuremberg Trials established a timeless principle: individuals are criminally liable for violating fundamental human rights, even if their governments authorized those violations. Some laws, Nuremberg held, transcend those of any nation.

We have fallen a long way in such a short time. Rather than enforce international principles we once pioneered by prosecuting former officials who enabled torture, our nation today violates those principles with impunity. President Obama’s focus on the future aims to transcend the political divisions deepened by his predecessors. But setting aside the past comes at a price.

Most concretely, failing to prosecute taints the debate on other “war on terror” policies. Preventive detention schemes, infiltrations of law-abiding groups based on constitutionally protected speech or religious activities, and secret warrantless surveillance programs each entail severe threats to the Constitution. They demand public debate.

But these debates have been skewed by the inclusion of former officials who, because they remain free from investigation, also remain free to champion their discredited policies in public. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, vigorously defends the Bush administration’s detention policy, despite clear evidence that torture hurt America in more ways than one.

Torture harmed our international relations with even allies like Britain, which curtailed cooperation with the CIA because of inhumane detainee treatment. Moreover, as the U.S. Air Force Major whose interrogations found the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq has written, "Torture and abuse became Al Qaida's number one recruiting tool and cost us American lives." Criminal prosecution would place the arguments of Bush administration apologists in the context they deserve.

Other costs of avoiding prosecution are less concrete but equally severe. For instance, failing to prosecute violations, by definition, erodes the rule of law. Law entails the consistent application of neutral principles across differing contexts. Yet our nation tolerates vast inequalities in prosecution. Between 2006 and 2007, over 320,000 Americans received prison sentences for nonviolent offenses. In sharp contrast, among the senior officials responsible for authorizing torture, none have faced even a criminal investigation, let alone charges, prosecution or a sentence.

Hundreds of lawyers across the country wrote the attorney general and Congress and explained how this unequal justice undermines the legitimacy of our legal system. They wrote, “The severity of systemic disadvantages in the criminal process grows more disturbing -- and the system’s legitimacy grows less secure -- when violations of our nation’s most fundamental commitments carry no consequences for potential criminals who wield political influence.”

Lawyers are not the only ones challenged by this bias. Nearly 500 teachers also raised their voices, noting how lawlessness impacts students: “We teach principles about our nation’s history, founding, and governance that appear simply implausible…[T]he preferential treatment of senior officials who commit heinous crimes -- relative to the school-to-prison pipeline that ensnares many of their peers for relatively innocuous misbehavior -- does not escape [our students’] attention.”

Thousands of other concerned Americans from all 50 states, including hundreds of health professionals and interfaith religious leaders, also observed that our country’s future ability to promote human rights elsewhere turns on whether we do so here at home today.

The Bush administration’s assault on the rule of law helped propel President Obama into office. Rather than fulfilling his politically daunting campaign promises, however, the administration has chosen expediency over the law.

The president himself has suggested time and again that it is ultimately up to “We the People” to defend our interests. The struggle to restore rule of law is one we will win, but only with the passionate participation of every concerned American.
Buttar is executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee which mobilizes grassroots action around the country to defend constitutional liberties eroded by the war on terror and restore the rule of law.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09


By Gracia O’Neill

North Carolina faces a critical decision on the growing costs and environmental damage caused by energy production. Announcing a proposed major rate hike recently, to average over $130 per year, per household, Duke Energy says it’s to supply “reliable energy,” which means they’ll generate and sell more power. North Carolina’s utilities want to build $35-40 billion worth of new coal and nuclear power plants, with Duke’s rate increase being a first installment on increases that could total over 50 percent for construction. That approach assumes ever-increasing power demand, despite recent data reflecting flat or even decreasing consumption.

That’s why more than 30 North Carolina social justice, religious, consumer and environmental groups instead support an approach that would create hundreds or even thousands of "green" jobs and crank down our demand for power, through a state-wide energy efficiency program called NC SAVE$ ENERGY.

Energy efficiency is the fastest, cleanest and cheapest way to control energy bills, and the best route to economic, environmental and health benefits. Efficiency costs less than one-fourth as much as new nuclear power and creates more new jobs. Every county has thousands of homes in urgent need of weatherization. Last year, the United Way's western North Carolina “2-1-1” helpline fielded more requests for assistance paying utility bills than any other service.

The 2007-2008 drought was also a wake-up call. Duke Energy and Tennessee Valley Authority plants actually had to power-down operations in August, 2007 for lack of the huge volumes of clean, cool water needed to operate each day. North Carolina's coal and nuclear power plants account for over 80 percent of registered water withdrawals, evaporating over a billion gallons each day. Some utilities are already raising electricity rates, knowing they will compete with households, businesses and farms for water in future droughts.

Although the state’s "caulk gun ready" weatherization programs are getting a boost from the federal recovery package, only a fraction of households will get needed assistance during the next two years. Further, the new jobs created will disappear when the money’s gone. To hold on to those new jobs and continue improving communities’ housing stock, we need an independent (non-utility) state-wide efficiency program with a “public benefit fund.” This assumes long term funding, and reaches more homes, public buildings and eventually businesses.

Efficient use of electricity and natural gas short-circuits the need for new water-hogging, polluting power plants, and keeps money in the pockets of the people who need it most. Efficiency programs run by investor-owned utilities do little (especially for low income households) and favor profits for shareholders over the public.

A 2007 report by Synapse Energy Economics examined six states' independent (non-utility) efficiency programs, which save hundreds of thousands of megawatt hours annually, reducing natural gas use and slashing thousands of tons of air pollutants. In 2007, New York’s low income participants saved an average of $220 per household. Vermont achieved enough efficiency gains to more than compensate for new energy customers. All of the state’s programs are independently audited each year, as NC SAVE$ ENERGY would be.

NC SAVE$ ENERGY's first priority is to reduce energy use in existing housing of low and moderate income residents, with possible future expansion to business and other sectors. Savings on utility bills will quickly pay for energy improvements performed by nonprofit and business contractors certified by the new program.

A small fee on utility bills would be the main funding, but grants, bonds, or selling carbon credits are other possible sources. NC SAVE$ ENERGY would cost an average of less than $2 a household per month, with substantial savings as homes get energy upgrades. Compare that to the $130 increase per year if Duke's rate increase is granted to pay for new power plants that we simply don’t need.

Here's an unparalleled opportunity to respond to the economic downturn without new appropriations in a scary budget year. NC SAVE$ ENERGY will create and sustain new jobs, offer savings for households and yield a safer, more secure energy future.
O'Neill is the assistant director at Clean Water for North Carolina (http://www.cwfnc.org/), a statewide environmental justice organization with offices in Asheville and Durham.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09

By Raj Date

Given the urgency and severity of the financial crisis, it is not surprising that most policymakers have to date been focused on here-and-now tactical initiatives to stabilize the financial system, rather than laying the foundation for a more sound and better regulated system in the future.

There are exceptions; Senator Durbin’s proposal for a Financial Product Safety Commission is one of them. The proposed Commission would establish minimum standards for the safety of financial products, and would focus especially on identifying deceptive and fraudulent practices. The institution’s mandate would be analogous to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As the proposal’s sponsors argued to the Treasury Secretary in a recent letter, “there is no reason for us to have regulations that prevent toasters from exploding into flames, but no protections to prevent mortgages and credit cards from doing the same.”

Opponents, thus far, have mustered what seems a half-hearted and formulaic argument against the proposal: introducing a new bureaucracy as the ultimate arbiter of product safety would effectively iron out differences in product structures and pricing, and dampen innovation.

The opposite is true. We have minimum standards on practically every consumer product -- from automobiles to the aforementioned toasters -- but innovation appears to proceed apace. You would be surprised what toasters can do these days!

Minimum product standards, then, don’t necessarily crowd out innovation. Instead, the difficulty for principled innovators in consumer financial services has been engineering new, improved product structures that can economically match the value captured through questionable, customer-unfriendly practices engaged in by competitors. Take the prime credit card business, for example. It is difficult to compete with large incumbents willing and able to use zero percent teaser rates, coupled with hair-trigger universal default repricing. The economic value of that customer-unfriendly practice was a killer advantage which stifled the need or potential for innovation.

A more persuasive objection to the proposed Commission is that it would add to the existing thicket of state and federal financial regulators, rather than replacing them. By doing so it would create further administrative hoop-jumping and destructive friction on innovation.

The proposed Commission avoids the political complexity of reducing an incumbent institution’s authority; but the fact remains that some regulators are dreadful when it comes to consumer protection. It was not by accident that Countrywide decided to re-charter its depository away from the OCC when the Fed and OCC began raising consumer protection concerns about non-traditional mortgage structures.

In reality, the industry suffers from too many regulators not from too much regulation. The proposed Commission should pre-empt them -- or, at least, it should pre-empt other federal authorities on these issues. The result would be more clarity, less arbitrage, and fewer burdens.

The proposal could be improved with an expansion of its mission from merely setting minimum standards. It is certainly true that deceptive sales practices are a major problem in consumer financial services, but they aren’t the main problem.

The main problem is that consumers -- who, as it turns out, are human beings -- are, in general, incapable of adequately weighing abstract financial risks and rewards. Perhaps the most telling example is banks’ “free checking” offerings, which aren’t free at all, because they tend to generate significant fees through non-sufficient funds (“NSF”) penalties on overdrafts. Consumers are aware of NSF fees; they just systematically underestimate how often they will incur them.

This is where the proposed Commission could help. Let me suggest an analogy. Restaurants in Los Angeles County are required to post a large placard in their front windows, showing an “A”, “B”, or “C”. Those letter grades correspond to an establishment’s scoring in routine health department inspections. The Los Angeles approach made more transparent the hygienic disparity between restaurants. That is, it helps consumers understand that while many restaurants meet minimum standards, they are not all equally safe.

Using this approach with financial products would allow the Commission to encourage and reward especially consumer-friendly product structures, while not ironing out innovative product wrinkles. This is the outcome that we should all desire.
Date is the chairman and executive director of the Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy. He is a former McKinsey & Company consultant, bank senior executive, and Wall Street managing director.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09

By Judy Patrick

In response to the swine flu epidemic, President Obama and the Centers for Disease Control are offering Americans some common-sense advice: wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and stay home from work if you feel sick.

Unfortunately, nearly half of all private-sector workers -- 57 million people -- may be forced to ignore that last piece of advice, because they aren’t allowed paid sick days and they risk losing income or even getting fired if they call in sick. For low-wage workers, that number is even higher: three out of four do not have the right to a paid sick day.

To our national shame, the U.S. stands alone among the top developed economies in the world in not providing workers with the right to stay home if they or a child is ill. It’s no different here in California, where, as in the rest of the country, half of all workers are denied even one single paid sick day.

Many of those workers are the same people who serve and prepare our food in restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food outlets. All told, about 90 percent of workers in the food service industry do not have paid sick days. So when one of them feels a cold (or worse) coming on, chances are they must come to work anyway, because the alternative is losing their job or all important wages. And chances are that the customer will end up with that cold (or worse).

Some people who have already figured this out are staying away from restaurants and burger joints and skipping their morning latte stop. That may be good for their health, but it’s terrible for our economy. And it hardly solves the problem. What about the millions of other low-wage workers who must interact with the public on a daily basis when they get sick as cashiers, child-care providers, bus drivers, hotel receptionists, bank tellers, parking lot attendants, security guards, and sales assistants because they have no paid sick days?

Fortunately, there is a solution on the horizon that doesn’t require you to wear a surgical mask for the rest of your life, and doesn’t require civic-minded workers to forfeit their jobs, their hard earned wages, and their health. Congress is considering a proposal that would grant most workers up to seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or sick family members. States and localities are also passing their own versions of the proposal including San Francisco, Milwaukee and the District of Columbia.

A report issued by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) on the Healthy Families, Healthy Workplaces Act of 2008 (last year’s proposal) found that California employers would have saved almost $2.3 million due to reduced turnover costs. In addition, California workers and their families would experience lower health care related expenditures, saving $7 million annually.

Paid sick days are not just a workers’ rights issue – it’s a public health issue. Clearly it’s in everybody’s interest to ensure that workers get paid sick days.

There’s an economic silver lining here, too: a workforce exposed to fewer contagious illnesses would have less absenteeism and be more productive. And with lower turnover comes lower training costs for employers.

With all of the talk these days about how to jumpstart the economy, perhaps companies that already provide paid sick days to their employees should consider advertising that fact. Wouldn’t you prefer to dine at a restaurant or shop in a store that sported a good health seal of approval? California employers might just find that offering this basic benefit makes for a healthy workplace – and healthy profits.
Patrick is president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. She previously served as vice president of programs at the Foundation, developing programs to strengthen grant partners’ organizational capacity and leading the Foundation’s advocacy and policy change work, including the development of the groundbreaking Women’s Policy Institute.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09

By Judith Liben and Tim H. Davis

In light of the current financial crisis and the public outrage over taxpayer-subsidized bailouts, it only makes sense for banks to explore every possible avenue to mitigate the damage to families and communities caused by foreclosure, while at the same time shoring up their bottom lines.

But foreclosure alone is not what ravages communities. A large share of the damage results from the post-foreclosure eviction policies of the lending industry. What do banks and servicers do with the “real estate owned” (REO) properties that they repossess after foreclosure? They quickly evict the tenants and former owner-occupants, leaving families displaced, perhaps homeless, and buildings vacant and vulnerable.

Abandoned homes are subject to vandalism and crime, quickly lose value, depress the worth of nearby properties, and force cash-strapped municipalities to expend critical resources confronting the inevitable health and safety risks that emerge.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The tragedy of abandonment and neighborhood despair could be avoided, at no cost to the public, if banks allowed eligible, rent-paying tenants and former homeowners to remain in their homes until they were sold to new owners. Lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently adopted REO rental policies that do just this.

Massachusetts is taking aim at the foreclosure vacancy problem and by considering temporary measures designed to meet the current foreclosure crisis. These proposals would permit rent-paying tenants and former owner-occupants who comply with basic tenancy obligations to remain in their homes until they were sold or if vacancy were required for sale to prospective owner-occupants.

A recent article on Bloomberg.com developed a cost-benefit analysis to show that in California, banks could collect more than $1 billion annually if they allowed tenants to remain and pay rent in REO properties. Even taking into account management fees and other expenses, a Freddie Mac spokesman asserts that “the costs are outweighed by the economic benefits, which include the income stream from monthly checks and the upkeep provided by renters.”

Adapting the Bloomberg methodology to Massachusetts, we estimate that banks could take in between $86 and $102 million annually. If the banks rented only to tenants in REO rental property, they would earn between $34 and $40 million each year. In addition, keeping these homes occupied will save taxpayers the cost of municipal services like police and fire protection, and the increasing cost to the state to shelter families made homeless by foreclosure evictions.

While the lending industry’s public position is that sales are facilitated when properties are vacant, internal documents from the large banks reveal their understanding that occupied properties receiving routine maintenance are often less costly than vacant properties, and may be more appealing to potential buyers. Further, foreclosed homes in Massachusetts are not selling quickly; the median time period for which they are held by the banks is seven months. In many neighborhoods properties remain vacant and unsold for much longer and often foreclosed properties do not sell at all.

Giving tenants and former owners in foreclosed homes the right to pay rent until properties are sold is a winning proposition for families, for the public and for the banks themselves.

It’s a great opportunity for the banks to do well, while doing good.
Liben is a senior housing attorney for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Davis is an independent research consultant.
Copyright © 2009 by the Massachusetts Forum. 6/09

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Let’s Make a New, New Deal

By Susan Feiner

FDR realized that, "People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." Why do most economic policies run counter to this basic point?

Faith in markets leads economists to believe that full-employment is impossible, government intervention is destructive, deficits are bad, and planning is futile. That is nonsense.

Remember Galileo? His heresy was challenging the belief that the earth was the center of the universe. It’s as heretical today to enact policies that don’t place markets at the center of the economy. Excommunicating Galileo didn’t change planetary orbits, but misguided fealty to markets does affect our future.

Today, over 14.5 million Americans are jobless and another 9 million are working reduced hours. All 372 metropolitan areas in the U.S. saw unemployment rise in May, and 93 recorded jobless rates of at least 10 percent.

To fight unemployment and reduce unnecessary suffering the Social Security Act of 1935 established a joint Federal-State system of unemployment insurance (UI). Today, state unemployment programs set benefits so low that few households dependent upon UI can make ends meet.

We are the skinflint states.

The stingiest state is Arkansas where the average weekly benefit ($207) contributes only 29 cents of each dollar a family needs to cover the bare minimum for food, rent and utilities, transportation, child care, clothing and household expenses. Arkansas' average weekly unemployment benefit works out to $1.36 per hour less than the federal minimum wage. The least stingy state is Wyoming where the average weekly benefit ($328.34) delivers 53 cents of each dollar needed to meet basic needs. U.S. workers collect, on average, $269.29 per week in UI. This replaces a mere 40 cents of each dollar needed to cover the basics.

Now is the time to embrace an economics of the people, for the people and by the people. Meaningful jobs at decent wages are as essential to democracy as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Consider this simple math: hire 10 million people at $25 thousand per year (about $12 per hour). The cost? $250 billion dollars -- a fraction of what we’ve handed the nation’s bankers who neither lend nor spend. In contrast, all $250 billion (less payroll taxes) will be spent immediately, putting a sharp brake on the downward spiral of joblessness.

Ten million people should not be paid $12 an hour to be idle. Rather, the federal government should step in as the employer of last resort. We know this works. It worked in the 1930s and it will work again today.

During the New Deal, direct federal employment created over 10 million jobs, driving unemployment to its lowest level since the Great Crash. Federal employees built schools, hospitals and libraries; brought electricity to millions of rural households; preserved thousands of acres of forest; and produced art that is now a treasured part of our heritage.

Now, as then, there is plenty of work to do and plenty of people who want work.

FDR knew that "Necessitous men are not free men." We have a choice: America -- the land of the free or the home of the broke?
Feiner is the director of women and gender studies and a professor of economics at the University of Southern Maine.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09

By Joan Dawson

In the past few decades, a term called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) or Parental Alienation (PA) has been used in family courts to describe a situation where one parent poisons the mind of the child against the other parent.

While it is true that some mothers (and fathers) intentionally bad-mouth their spouses or partners, several reasons can explain why the child fears or distances him or herself from a parent. It has long been recognized that children experiencing divorce can exhibit aggressive behavior or depression. Children can react angrily to their parent’s separation and may even be reacting to the conflict and violence they’ve witnessed.

But there is another possible explanation for a so-called alienated child. The child may have been abused and, as a result, fears or exhibits hostility towards the “target” parent. PAS, then, can shift the attention from an abusive situation to that of a protective parent’s “alienating” behavior. Abusers, who, not surprisingly, deny allegations or call them “false allegations” (and actually get the spouse punished with fines or jailtime), are more likely to seek custody than nonviolent parents. And, often enough, they get it.

While PAS has many proponents, most credible agencies do not support it. The American Psychological Association says PAS “lacks evidence” and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges refers to it as a “discredited” syndrome. The American Prosecutor's Research Institute says, "…PAS is an untested theory that, unchallenged, can have far-reaching consequences for children seeking protection and legal vindication in courts of law." Despite opposition, PAS is still used widely in courtrooms across the country.

In the past decade judges have felt compelled to rectify claims of alienation. Some have sent children to “deprogramming” or reunification centers in attempts to undo hostile feelings. According to the Leadership Council on Child Abuse, therapy usually involves confining the child to a location away from home and isolating the child from the parent to whom the child is most attached. The attachment to the favored parent is challenged, while encouraging the child with intensive sessions to re-accept the rejected parent.

Since abusers can use PAS as an excuse, some children are reunified with a parent that physically, emotionally or sexually abused them. The child may react to this reunification with increased symptoms, suicidal ideation, or even suicide attempts.

Recently in Ontario, a judge ordered two teenage boys to undergo deprogramming treatment after allegedly being brainwashed by the father. An 18 year old sibling stepped in and sought custody for his younger brothers; both of whom were diagnosed as suicidal. Newspapers reported him as saying, “My brothers have ended up being committed in a hospital against their wishes, committed to live somewhere where they do not want to live, exposed to psychiatrists, who have attempted to carry out experimental therapy with them at the risk of severe harm to them.”

Deprogramming treatment raises important ethical and legal questions. Do children have a right to their own thoughts? Do they have a choice in forming their relationships? Do parent’s interests trump children’s? Can legal strategies be employed to challenge children’s fear and hostility? These are complex issues that deserve careful evidence-based approaches that preserve the integrity of children’s rights while balancing those of the parents. If any treatment is court-ordered, we owe it to our children to use the ethical guidelines set out by the American Psychological Association to guide us in our decisions.

Deprogramming treatment for children, at least for now, should be confined to the realm of science fiction and not to courtrooms.
Dawson is a public policy assistant at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is a member of the Family Court Reform Coalition.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09

By Paula Gianino, Peter Brownlie, Tonia Stubblefield

The "Get Yourself Tested" campaign -- or for the text-savvy, GYT09 -- was created as a means of addressing the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions' recently released and alarming statistics: one in four teenage females [contract] HAS a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and half of all teenagers are sexually active.

Missouri's score card is even worse. Missouri's largest cities -- Kansas City and St. Louis -- lead the country in chlamydia and gonorrhea rates. Two-thirds of Missouri's high school juniors are sexually active, and one in two young adults will contract an STD before their 25th birthday. These statistics are unacceptable and a cause for alarm and action, as they impact the health and well-being of Missouri's teenagers and young adults.

Our former governor and members of our legislature have turned their backs on this crisis. They eliminated Missouri's family planning program while also reducing the standards for comprehensive and evidence-based sexual health information in public schools. Meanwhile they refused to pass sensible prevention legislation this year that would allow health professionals to presumptively treat the partners of patients who have STDs -- a clinical standard that exists in most other states.

Given these cutbacks in funding and services, public health providers like Planned Parenthood face great barriers in identifying and treating those who are infected. Each year, over 19 million Americans contract a sexually transmitted disease, and most go undetected or undiagnosed due to a social stigma around testing and elusive symptoms of many diseases. Left untreated these STDs can lead to cancer, infertility and in the case of HIV, death.

Therefore, this past April the "Get Yourself Tested" campaign was launched in honor of National STD Awareness Month. Created in a partnership with MTV, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Planned Parenthood, the goal of the campaign was to reduce the social stigma and fear surrounding STD testing, and increase the number of individuals tested. The partner organizations used creative outreach and media while Planned Parenthood affiliates across the nation offered free and low-cost testing to anyone that walked into our doors. The results were amazing.

Throughout Missouri we saw increases in the number of people who were tested. In Kirksville, Rolla and Lake of the Ozarks, 20 percent more people received STD tests than during the same period last year. Southwest Missouri health centers saw a significant increase, giving nearly 200 HIV tests and 600 gonorrhea and chlamydia tests. Kansas City health centers provided 990 STD tests. St. Louis' tests for HIV rose 94 percent from the year prior while gonorrhea and chlamydia tests rose 77 percent, compared to April 2008.

The month-long campaign was so successful, that the "Get Yourself Tested" initiative will continue throughout the year for teens and young adults. GYT is a positive campaign that targets both women and men, and gives individuals the information and services needed to be healthy and safe and to take control of their lives and health. We urge youths to visit www.gyt09.com for more information.

While the campaign represents an enormous step forward, the results show that we can't do it all on our own. For the past five years, the Missouri legislature has ignored the prevention first act which includes comprehensive sex education -- the first step in reducing the number of teens infected with an STD. Missourians should continue to push for legislation that would assist all of our youths -- and adults -- and greatly improve our state's health.
Gianino, Browlie and Stubblefield are the respective presidents and CEOs of the Planned Parenthoods of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, Kansas and Mid-Missouri and Tri-Rivers.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Missouri Forum. 6/09

By Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ignacio Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican migrant worker from Illinois convicted of identity theft in 2007. Like most migrant workers, Flores-Figueroa did not know that the social security number in the false papers he was forced to buy in order to get work was a number that actually belonged to another person.

The crime of identity theft was established by an act of Congress in 1998, to deal with the growing problem of people stealing credit cards and personal information to empty bank accounts or get thousands of dollars in credit under someone else’s name. After 9/11/2001, authorities feared that false identities could also be used to facilitate acts of terrorism. This led to the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004, which made it an aggravated felony punishable by an additional two-year minimum prison sentence.

Since 2006, overzealous prosecutors realized they could use this anti-terrorist weapon to criminalize illegal immigration – which is only a civil offense. So they began testing the waters by charging migrant workers in isolated cases. They won convictions and appeals. One of those cases was that of Flores-Figueroa, who appealed to the 8th Circuit Court and lost. This success emboldened immigration prosecutors to apply the charge against 300 workers at the May 12, 2008 raid in Postville, Iowa.

The Postville raid and prosecution was a pilot project intended as a model for future massive raids across the country. But it backfired. After acting as an interpreter in the proceedings, I denounced their abuse of process in an essay that prompted a congressional investigation and the uniform condemnation by the American legal community. That is why at the August 25 raid in Laurel, Mississippi, only eight out of 595 workers arrested were criminally charged. However, if the Supreme Court had decided to uphold the charge earlier this month, Postville would now be the norm for the massive criminalization of workers in future immigration enforcement.

The identity theft statute reads: “Knowingly uses the means of identification of another person during and in relation to a felony violation.” The prosecution contended that “knowingly” applies to “uses a means of identification” but does not apply to “of another person”; therefore, such knowledge was not necessary to convict. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed in a historic 9-0 decision. The Postville scandal had made a difference. It showed how simple semantics and biased interpretation of the law resulted in massive injustice.

Given that my inside account of the Postville prosecutions had cracked the case wide open, I was approached by a team from NYU Law School to help prepare an Amicus Brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Flores-Figueroa. I told the legal team that, as a linguist, I saw no ambiguity in the statute: “Knowingly” as an adverb of a “transitive verb” must apply to the entire object phrase, “uses the means of ID of another person.” Further, most of the detainees we interviewed did not even know what a social security number was. Many had their papers filled out at the plant because they could not read or write. I described the proceedings as a “lottery of justice”: If the made-up social security number belonged to another person, you were hammered with identity theft; if it was a vacant number, you were saved by sheer luck. These were the same rationales cited in the Supreme Court’s decision.

This decision is hugely significant. The Postville strategy was to threaten these workers with identity theft in order to force them, guilty or not, to plead to lesser charges and accept five months in jail followed by automatic deportation. With our immigration judges overloaded and detention beds full to capacity, migrants were being arrested faster than they could be processed, thereby putting a cap on raids and arrests. Postville’s criminal “fast-tracking” provided a way to circumvent the immigration backlog, giving raids an unlimited green light. The Supreme Court closed that loophole and turned the light to red.

The 9-0 decision overturned three Appeal Courts and thousands of individual cases. It meant that Postville and countless other proceedings were nothing but a big mistake, based on a biased interpretation of the law that put politics and prejudice before justice.
Camayd-Freixas is a professor of modern languages at Florida International University.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09

By David Korten and Doug Pibel

Politicians and the business press are looking for signs that the economic crisis is over and we’ll soon be back on track. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks of “green shoots” of recovery. President Obama sees “glimmers of hope.” All the massive infusions of borrowed stimulus and bailout money are aimed at the dream of getting us back to where we were during the recent “boom.” Do we really want to go there? And even if we do, is such an economy realistic today?

Yes, the bubble economy of the ’00s created mountains of paper wealth. Between tax cuts for the wealthiest and increasingly exotic (and risky) forms of investment, the richest fraction of Americans did very well, indeed.

But during that boom, incomes stayed flat for the overwhelming majority of Americans even as productivity soared, millions lost health care coverage, costs of energy, housing, food, and education climbed, and debt reached record levels.

If economic recovery means returning to those times, there’s no reason for most of us to want it. This economic crisis may be the best opportunity in our lifetimes to shut down the unfair and destructive Wall Street system and reboot with a values-based operating system for a new economy designed to support social and environmental balance and the businesses that create sustainable and fair prosperity.

We have seen what happens when government and big business operate in secret. The new system must be open to public scrutiny. It must be locally rooted in strong communities, distribute wealth equitably, and balance public and private interests. Society is better served by a system that favors productive work and investment, limits speculation, and suppresses inflation in all forms -- including financial bubbles.

Here’s how we can get there.

1. Responsible Enterprise. Service to the community, rather than profit, is the primary justification for a business to exist. Enterprises are most likely to serve their communities when they are human-scale and owned by responsible local investors with an active interest in their operation beyond mere profit. No corporation should be too big to fail. The new economy will use anti-trust to break up large corporations into their component parts and sell them to responsible local owners, including family, worker, and community owned enterprises, and cooperative alliances among locally rooted firms.

2. Community Banking. The government is buying ownership shares in failed Wall Street banks with the expectation of eventually reselling them to private interests. A better plan, as many economists are recommending, is to force bankrupt banks into government receivership. These banks should be broken up and their branches sold to local investors. These community banks, credit unions and mutual savings and loan associations should be chartered to serve Main Street needs, lending to local manufacturers, merchants, farmers, and homeowners within a strong regulatory framework.

3. Real Wealth Investment. Contrary to the claims of Wall Street, financial speculation does not create real wealth. Since it serves no public interest, is predatory, and causes instability, it should be strongly discouraged. The money that has been used for speculation must be redirected to productive investment that meets our essential needs responsibly, equitably, and sustainably using green technologies and closed-loop production cycles.

4. Middle-Class Fiscal Policy. It is time to reinstitute the policies that created the American middle class after World War II. Restore progressive income tax with a top rate of 91 percent as under the Republican Eisenhower Administration; favor universal participation in responsible home ownership and a family wage. Because no one has a natural birth entitlement to any greater share of the real wealth of society than anyone else, use the estate tax to help restore social balance at the end of each lifetime.

5. Government-Issued Money. The government can and should issue debt-free money to create living wage jobs, rebuild public infrastructure, and restore domestic productive capacity. Properly administered, this money will flow to community-based enterprises and help revitalize Main Street market economies engaged in the production of real wealth. It is folly, however, for government to finance those projects by borrowing money created by the same private banks that created the financial mess.

Current proposals for dealing with the economic collapse fall far short of a real solution to the current economic crisis. We face an urgent need to expand and deepen the debate to advance options that can build sustainable prosperity for all our children and grandchildren.
Korten is author of Agenda for a New Economy, and the lead article in the summer issue of YES! Magazine. Pibel is Managing Editor of YES! Magazine.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09


By Rev. Jeremy Tobin

The history of immigrant labor in this country is as old as the country itself.

Given political or economical expediency, immigrants were given legal protection and a path to citizenship, or were locked out due to politically dominated regulations. That being said, goods we take for granted, and can purchase fairly cheaply, are often the result of immigrant labor.

The 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. are usually paid below standard wages with no health or other benefits. Many are often cheated. Threatened with deportation, or worse, immigrants do not call on law enforcement for help. Recently an undocumented immigrant died, afraid to call for help after his home was invaded. These conditions create a subclass of people with a strong work ethic, who are easy to exploit, and readily available.

This is not the “American way.” The situation has to change, and it has to be on the side of foreign born workers who only want what everyone else wants -- the opportunity to support their families and live with dignity.

Immigration laws and regulations are a patchwork of inconsistencies, contradictions, and injustices. State laws are often worse. The raids on workplaces that have captured media attention tear families apart and trash human rights.

Organizations long associated with anti-black racism have reinvented themselves as watchdogs of national security. They are xenophobic and racist. They are afraid that if immigrants unite with other exploited groups, real reform in American labor law might happen. Massive profits, at the expense of exploited groups while the average Joe is able to buy things cheaply, is what has been accepted as the status quo.

To exploit people for profit is unjust. The current restrictions on visas are largely driven by racism. In the 50s it was the “yellow peril.” In the 2000s it is the “brown peril.” The folks that are benefitting from this racism are laughing all the way to the bank.

Fair and just immigration policy must include: a path to legal standing for those currently undocumented; no guest worker provisions; the right to seek employment like everyone else, with the same pay scale and benefits as everyone else; and the right to organize and/or join unions.

Those espousing comprehensive immigration policy say they want guest workers, but “they should be treated fairly and humanely.” In fact, there have been guest workers in one form or another over the past 40 years and they have been consistently exploited. If they quit, or get fired, they lose their status. If they seek better employment, they lose their status. In effect, guest workers are all but indentured servants to the company that sponsors and hires them. Their pay is at the mercy of the company. The imbalance between profit and employment all but guarantees worker exploitation.

Further, many of the crazy schemes like a great wall to keep out immigrants are a sham. As long as NAFTA and CAFTA are ruining native economies and driving farmers and others into destitution, the migration of the desperate to find work is unstoppable. The United Nations and religious leaders everywhere, defend the right to migrate, not only for decent work, but to escape persecution.

We have the opportunity and the will to correct the imbalances of our immigration laws. We can do it both to benefit immigrants by giving them the opportunity for a new life, and to enrich our country with their many cultures. This is our challenge in 2009.
Rev. Tobin is a member of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Mississippi Forum 5/09


By Tony Garr

We’re in a pretty tough economic time. We’ve seen this before and have pulled our neighbors and ourselves through by using our good sense and decency.

But, help me understand this:

More than a quarter million Tennesseans have lost their jobs and their health insurance since the recession started in December 2007. Before then, there were 850,000 uninsured Tennesseans. In May 140,000, TennCare enrollees began receiving notice that their TennCare would be ending. By the end of September, as few as 20,000 will retain their eligibility. In February of this year, Tennessee got good news when it learned that it was getting an additional $1.1 billion for its TennCare program to help people stay enrolled, keeping Tennesseans secure in these insecure economic times.

Stay with me, I have some more puzzling information.

The state closed the Medically Needy TennCare program for adults in May 2005, promising to re-open it soon. Now May 2009 has passed, and it‘s still shut tight. In 2005 the program was frozen, closed to new enrollees, leaving 97,000 enrolled. In 2007, the state changed the eligibility rules, allowing people to count only medical bills that they owe that are only three months old, not older medical bills. As a result, when TennCare conducted an eligibility determination in 2008, less than 1,000 people remained eligible. Now the governor proposes to keep the program closed. Does the governor think that because he’s shut the door on these folks they no longer exist—that Tennesseans aren’t hurting like other Americans; therefore, there is no need to re-open this program?

Now, for the tough part: tricky political math. State funds, not federal, proposed for the TennCare budget for fiscal year 2010 are less than they were for fiscal year, 2009, yet TennCare will actually cover fewer people and receive over $300 million additional federal dollars for fiscal year 2009, over $500 million for fiscal year 2010, and over $200 million for fiscal year 2011.

Of course, the state needs to balance its budget, but, it can do so without sacrificing some of its citizens who are in the economic abyss. So should it be okay for the state, the place for service of last resort for the most vulnerable of its citizens, to shrug its shoulder, turn away, and just say, “You are on your own. Good luck!”?

There are thousands of struggling families and now is the time--not during good times, but during bad times--when folks really need help. And there is no good reason for the state not to help. There is an existing program and more than enough existing funds reserved for health care to help Tennessee families.

Now is the time to re-open the TennCare Medically Needy program. This is a no-brainer. It will help thousands of eligible Tennesseans obtain medical coverage. It will do it with less state money and more federal money, and it will not obligate the state for future coverage beyond 2011 when the stimulus money runs out.

Here’s how it works:

• Tennessee will get three federal dollars for each state dollar under the stimulus package. It used to get only two federal dollars; • People who qualify can only get coverage for one year. This is like a bridge, like COBRA. For this reason, one-time money is what is needed. No problem here because TennCare has a reserve of about $500 million dollars and the state has a rainy day fund of 750 million; • It will only help people who have low incomes and who are either disabled, elderly, or the caregivers of children under the age of 21. By opening this program, it will not help everyone, but it will help thousands of very vulnerable Tennesseans.

It all adds up to priorities. Are working, low-income folks worth it? Or are they somehow undeserving because they have nothing to give to a re-election campaign?

Do state legislators care? Do Tennesseans care? In these tough times, are we still the decent people we say we are? I believe we are.
Garr is executive director of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 6/09

By Cecily Kellogg

Last Sunday morning, a man walked into a church in Wichita, Kansas and shot to death Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was volunteering as an usher that Sunday, so he was standing in the lobby of the church when the gunman entered. Unfortunately, Dr. Tiller’s death didn’t really come as a surprise; his medical practice centered on performing abortions, particularly late term abortions, and he’d been attacked before. Regardless of the near constant threats and harassment he received, Dr. Tiller was committed to his work. Why? Because he believed that “abortion is a matter of survival for women.”

It was for me. In October of 2004, I was pregnant with my sons Nicholas and Zachary. With great joy and expectation, my husband, my best friend, and I visited my doctor for a normal growth ultrasound. I was nearly 23 weeks pregnant, hovering at the start of the third trimester. Within moments it was clear something was wrong; one of the boys was still and had no heartbeat. When I met with my doctor, routine screening revealed the worst: the symptoms I’d been experiencing that I thought were normal with a twin pregnancy were actually evidence that I was sick -- very, very sick. I was immediately admitted to the hospital with severe preeclampsia, and though my doctors tried mightily to slow the progression of the disease, by the morning of October 27, 2004 a group of doctors stood at my bedside and delivered the worst news I’d ever received.

I was in advanced kidney failure. My blood pressure was skyrocketing, and it could not be controlled with medications. My liver was beginning to decline. The horrific headache I was experiencing could no longer be treated with pain medications because they were afraid it would depress my ability to breathe when I began to have the seizures they expected at any moment. I would soon likely suffer a stroke or a heart attack. In other words, I was going to die unless the pregnancy was terminated. Immediately.

There was no hope for my surviving son. He was too tiny and too frail to be viable. With my dangerously high blood pressure, a c-section would have likely caused me to bleed to death, and inducing labor would have stressed my system too much. My safest option was the procedure known as an intact dilation and extraction. It would save my life, and preserve my future fertility. As luck would have it, my obstetrician happened to be one of three doctors in the Philadelphia area that was both trained and willing to do the procedure. Within an hour of receiving my bad news, I lay in the surgical suite, covered in tubes and wires, weeping inconsolably as the doctors tried to offer comfort as they prepped me for surgery.

It was the worst day of my life.

After I came home from the hospital, grieving, I searched and found other women like me -- women whose lives were saved by the late-term medical termination of a pregnancy. I also met women who chose to spare their children from agonizing health conditions and birth defects by having an abortion. What I learned is that we are rare; only 1.1 percent of all abortion are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy (according to the Guttmacher Institute), and doctors only perform them in cases of extreme medical need. Dr. Tiller himself never performed a late term abortion without counseling the parents -- and getting a second opinion from another doctor. My doctor described the day of my surgery as the worst in his professional career.

With the help of other women like me, I grieved. I healed. I tried again, and in June of 2006, my wild and fierce daughter Victoria was born. As I healed, I came to realize how lucky I was. Yes, I said lucky. This was in 2004, before the Partial Birth Abortion Ban became law, and my doctors were able to move quickly to save my life without worrying about breaking the law. My doctor knew the procedure and was willing to perform it; something that has already become rare and will be rarer still if doctors have to put their lives on the line to perform this life saving medical procedure. If it’s you or your daughter, will you be so lucky?
Kellogg is a freelance writer living outside of the Philadelphia area. She has blogged about her experience at http://www.uppercasewoman.com/.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 5/09


By Lindsey Oliver

When I was 16 I had an abortion. It was both difficult to arrange and pay for. Yet this pivotal event resulted in a lifelong commitment to working towards a world with reproductive justice for everyone. The sad part isn’t that I had an abortion, but that there were so many barriers. Even more disheartening is that I know I am not the only person who lacks access to a safe and legal abortion.

My experience led me to volunteer at one of Richmond’s most targeted abortion clinics. I helped protect patients from the aggressive and sometimes violent harassment they often receive from protestors when entering or exiting the clinic. One day someone walking by gave us $20 and encouraged us all to take ourselves out for pizza. But we had just witnessed several women leaving the clinic without getting their abortions because they couldn't afford the procedure. So we took that $20 and helped one woman. The experience helping just that one woman made me realize how many more need help. So at age 19 I co-founded the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project. The fund primarily helps women who cannot afford to pay for their abortions, but it also provides education and advocacy in our city. Abortion funds like ours were set up in 41 states in order to ensure that poor women were able to have the same access to reproductive choice as everyone else.

The women we fund are poor -- many lack access to education, good jobs and health care for themselves and their children. Most often they are young, and are already mothers. They are always in a state of desperation. These women need and deserve help the most. I am often asked how these women are allowed to fall through the cracks. One of the many answers to that question is Henry Hyde, the man most directly responsible for denying millions of women’s access to an abortion just because they are poor.

After the Roe v. Wade decision decriminalized abortion in 1973, Medicaid -- the national system that offers financial support for medical care to low-income Americans -- covered abortion care without restriction. But in 1976, Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois introduced and passed an amendment to the federal budget that limited federal funding for abortion care. The Hyde Amendment has been passed with the federal budget every single year since.

Although 15 states use their own funds to cover abortions under many circumstances, Virginia is not one of them. This leaves the Commonwealth’s poorest women without resources to determine the size and shape of their own families. In the absence of public funding, abortion funds pick up what slack they can. Last year, abortion funds across the country, including RRFP, raised and disbursed more than $3 million to assist 21,000 women in paying for their abortions.

However, grassroots abortion funds like ours can only help a fraction of all women who need it. We will never be able to be able to take the place of public funding. That is why we need to restore Medicaid funding for abortion.

The National Network of Abortion Funds, an organization composed of 103 grassroots abortion funds in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and overseas, is now taking on the Hyde Amendment through the “Hyde-30 Years is Enough!” campaign. The 80+ organizational members of the Hyde Campaign are working to repeal the Hyde Amendment and restore dignity to poor women.

For women who are struggling to make ends meet and who do not have insurance that covers abortion care, the legal right to have an abortion does not guarantee access. The restrictions imposed by the Hyde Amendment unfairly jeopardize the health and well-being of low-income women and their families. Women who do not have the ability to pay for abortion services may resort to attempting a self-induced abortion or obtaining unsafe, illegal abortions from untrained practitioners. Even though the Hyde Amendment has exceptions for rape, incest and life endangerment, Medicaid virtually never pays even for abortions that meet those exemptions.

As the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project celebrates our fifth year as a nonprofit, I feel the urge to take a moment to reflect on the hundreds of women’s lives we have directly impacted. However, the need for the health services we support calls for more action. It’s time to make a full range of reproductive health services available to all Virginia women.
Oliver is the cofounder of Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project. At 25 years old, she is the youngest person on the board of the National Network of Abortion Funds.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Virginia Forum. 5/09

By Dennis Markatos-Soriano

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission director Jon Wellinghoff recently stated that the U.S. may not need any new coal or nuclear power plants. Due to our tremendous renewable energy potential, the rising challenge of global warming, and the high cost of new conventional plants, I think he’s right.

The U.S. can meet future electricity demand by deploying efficiency and renewable energy.

The potential for renewable energy is great. The U.S. has more wind and solar potential than all its oil, gas and coal reserves. Our current total electrical generating capacity of 1,000 GW is dwarfed by the combination of onshore and offshore wind potential of ~3,000 GW cited by Interior Secretary Salazar. And solar power's potential is many times greater than that if we deploy panels on less than 1 percent of our land. Add to that the potential of geothermal, hydropower, and biomass -- and fossil fuels begin to look like a dinosaur of the 20th century that will soon be replaced.

The price of new renewable energy is decreasing dramatically and may soon be lower than new fossil fuel power supply. For instance, solar photovoltaic modules have fallen from $20 per watt in the early 1980s to below $3 per watt today. Between 2004 and 2008, white-hot demand growth that outpaced solar supply growth prevented prices from falling. But now that supply has caught up with demand, 2009 prices continue downward.

Fossil fuels have powered our rising standard of living since the late 1800s. But now that we recognize large current and future costs from greenhouse gas pollution, we must cap such pollution and lower our emissions. We successfully lowered lead emissions from gasoline in the 1980s and sulfur dioxide from coal smokestacks in the 1990s. A similar cap (with emissions trading) to lower carbon emissions is now being considered in Congress. Such a framework gives renewable energy the opportunity to grow in electrical market share from 10 percent today to over 20 percent by 2020.

The renewables market is poised to meet all new electricity demand. Of renewables' 10 percent share of electricity, hydro contributes the most -- followed by wind, biomass, geothermal, and solar. Renewable capacity represented over half of new capacity in 2008 (with wind power growing a record 8.5 GW and solar .36 GW). By 2011, renewable capacity growth can provide the ~15 GW per year our grid needs without adding expensive new coal or nuclear power plants. By the mid-2010s, renewable electricity can replace retiring old coal power plants, especially in the wind-rich Midwest and the solar-rich Southwest.

U.S. electricity demand growth is slowing and may soon stagnate even as population continues to climb. From 9 percent per year in the 1950s, demand growth has fallen each decade to ~7 percent, 4.2 percent, 2.6 percent, 2.3 percent, and then ~1 percent so far in the 2000s. Today's recession erased the need for new electric capacity recently as electricity use fell almost 1 percent in 2008 and is projected to fall much further in 2009. Electricity demand is not expected to recover to 2007 levels until 2011.

This tough economic period is an opportunity to build a more secure economy by spurring our recovery through efficiency and renewables. As long as the recent stimulus bill is executed well, we can hold demand constant through living more efficiently and implementing smarter grid design.

Deploying efficiency and renewables can support millions of green jobs in our country and strengthen our economy as we free ourselves from huge foreign oil bills. Becoming the global leader in low-carbon energy and efficiency is a path to prosperity in a world focused on reducing emissions in the decades ahead.

We maintained economic health in the past by leading innovations of the 20th century. A domestic market was always crucial for success, such as U.S. computer demand driving Silicon Valley's advances. Now, a domestic market for efficiency and renewable energy will help us regain our economic footing.

Jon Wellinghoff is right. Our country has the renewable resources to take advantage of falling costs for wind and solar power. The time is ripe to aggressively match this deployment with efficient usage, simultaneously saving ratepayers thousands and helping preserve a stable global climate.
Markatos-Soriano is the director of Sustainable Energy Transition (http://www.setenergy.org/), a nonprofit dedicated to helping campuses and communities throughout the country move to a climate-friendly energy future based on efficiency and renewables.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 5/09