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

Tuesday, February 24, 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

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

Friday, February 13, 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

Thursday, February 05, 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

Monday, February 02, 2009

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