Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why do our elected officials want Americans to starve?

By Marc Jampole
As the lead story of the latest issue of The Progressive Populist by Jill Richardson reminded us this week, the House of Representatives wants to cut $2.0 billion out of the annual food stamp budget.  A bill in the Senate would limit the cut in the food stamp program to $400 million. Either set of cuts will result in some combination of fewer people receiving food stamps and those receiving food stamps getting less.  Let’s make no bones about it, people will go hungry.
In a recent article circulating the Internet, someone named Michael Lombardi puts two well-known numbers together to demonstrate the enormity of the problem of food insecurity in the United States: the number of Americans on food stamps (47.7 million) and the number of people living in Spain (46.2 million).  Guess what? More people get food stamps in the United States than live in the entire country of Spain.

We have a country’s worth of people so poor that they need government funds to buy food. 

Despite what race-baiting right-wingers like Rick Santorum say, the large number of people on food stamps does not reflect on the weak moral fiber of Americans or some special group of Americans. Believe me, very few if any of the nearly 48 million U.S. citizens on food stamps want to be on food stamps. Food stamp recipients must earn less than 130% of the federal poverty line, which in 2013 computes to a little over $30,500 a year for a family of four and less than $15,000 a year for an individual.  But there’s another catch. To qualify for food stamps you pretty much must have no savings, since even $100 in liquid assets (bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs) will disqualify you, no matter how little you make.

Do you know anyone who wants to live at the poverty level with no savings?  I don’t and I never have, even during the hippy-dippy-trippy days of the 1970s.

I know people who have lost their jobs or are chronically underemployed. I know people who don’t have the skills to get a decent-paying job and I know people with skills that have grown obsolete. I know people who were never trained how to write a resume or cover letter in school and people who have trouble reading because of a disability.

I know people who have been emotionally crushed by fighting one or more of our dirty wars or who have had the energy drained out of them by extreme and persistent poverty. I know people who overextended themselves in debt because of illness in the family. I know people who bought into the American ideology of consumption and didn’t save enough money and then lost their jobs. 

I know people who lost their jobs when the CEO screwed up and then walked away with a golden parachute.

I know a lot of children in poor families, who face food insecurity through no fault of their own, merely because they were born into a poor family or one that fell from the grace of a middle class life.

All of these people—the children and the adults, those in poverty through no fault of their own and those who “got what they deserved”—all have something in common besides their impoverished conditions.

They are all human beings. They don’t deserve to go hungry in a land of plenty.

So why do so many of our elected officials want to starve their fellow Americans?

If we want to cut the food stamp budget, we should create more jobs through major public projects such as improving mass transit, retrofitting buildings to make them greener and safer, and repairing bridges, highways and dams. We should make sure the jobs are well-paying by substantially raising the minimum wage and fostering increased unionization of the workforce. We need to invest in our schools.

Starving people to cut the budget is inhumane and not worthy of a representative democracy.

The farm bill goes down, but local foods march on!

For the last week, I've been in internet purgatory. After a great art event at the farm, enjoying the solstice and the jumbo moon, amazing, and making my best picture ever, even Barb said it looked like a chicken, I left my computer in the sun. Don't ever do that. It ended up fried, unresponsive, dead. Even the experts haven't been able to get the information off the hard drive. Ah, well. Now I have an even greater appreciation for my local community. What if the internet goes down everywhere? Well, if it's summer, we'll get by. If it's winter, well, better have some summer food in the cupboard. Or learn how to hunt. A couple of new books on local foods emphasize the importance of hunting and fishing. In my neighborhood, where hunting is a common activity, we are shocked by the number of city folks in the woods with guns that shoot rat-a-tat-tat, maybe 15 shots at a time. Nobody who really knows how to shoot needs 15 shots to bring down a deer. Or a coyote, turkey, dove or even squirrel, rabbit...well, you get the picture. We're not much for gun control around here, but then comes the news from the college campus. One of our favorite basketball players, a cutie with a big grin named Tony, shot dead in Memphis on his summer break. I went to the memorial service in search of answers but nobody could talk about it yet. That's what heartbreak does to you, leaves you speechless. that's enough for today. June 27, 2013.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bad Supreme Court decision in voting rights case won’t make difference in real world

By Marc Jampole

The best analogy I can find to characterize the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act is to imagine a patient with high cholesterol, probably because of poor nutrition. The doctor gives the patient a cholesterol-lowering drug and the cholesterol goes down to a safer level. The doctor concludes that the patient is cured and makes the patient stop taking the pills. We all know what’s going to happen next.

“The patient is cured” states the essence of the argument of the five right-wing justices who decided that nine states no longer need to get approval from the federal government before making changes to voting procedures.

But don’t the many recent attempts to limit voters’ rights in these nine plus many other states prove that the disease has not been cured?  These voting restrictions always seem to affect minorities, the poor and the young more than other groups. Keep in mind that many if not most of these new restrictions on voting were blocked by the feds, overturned by courts or repudiated by their sponsors after the election.  The Latin phrase, res ipsa loquitur—a thing that proves itself—seems to apply to recent Republican attempts to prevent people from voting. We just know those good old boys are still eating bacon and fried foods slathered in gravy, yet the good doctors of law at the Supreme Court took them off their Lipitor.

But at the end of the day, this decision is going to mean little. Whatever the decision would have been, Republicans will keep introducing legislation to make it more difficult to register to vote and to vote. And when those laws pass the many Republican controlled state legislatures, civil rights groups, Democrats and organizations representing minorities will continue to take them to court. Most but not all of the laws restricting voting rights will be overturned. The controversy will continue to energize voters on both sides—but that will help the Democrats, since theirs are the voting groups targeted by Republican efforts.

Yes, registering to vote and voting will become harder in many locations. But voters will become hardier and more assertive as they react with anger to attempts to limit their rights.  Groups will continue to do a better job of registering voters and escorting them to the polls on both sides, but there are more potential voters for the Democrats.  The Republicans are playing a losing hand.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Charter schools continue to underperform public schools.

By Marc Jampole
The New York Times headline this morning should have read “Charter Schools Continue to Underperform Public Schools.” Instead the Times headline writer went with Charter Schools Are Improving, a Study Says.”

Both are true, but the first is truer because it isn’t taken out of context. Someone could infer from “Charter Schools are Improving…”  that they were better than public schools, particularly since many falsely believe that already, either because they have swallowed the “free market is always better” Kool-Aid  or because they have read so much derogatory right-wing nonsense about public schools and teachers’ union.

Here are the facts: “The National Charter School Study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) is the gold standard for comparing the performance of charter schools and public schools.  CREDO released its original study four years ago and released an updated version yesterday. In both studies, neighborhood public schools win over charter schools hands down. 

But charter schools are improving—from very bad to mediocre: In 2009, 37% of charter schools performed worse than the neighborhood public school and only 17% did better. Now 31% do worse than the neighborhood school while 29% do better.  As the Times underscores, charter schools range in quality from state to state: doing better in New York, Michigan and Louisiana, and worse in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Texas, among other states.

What’s so fascinating to me is that the New York Times would have a misleading headline to a story that was on the whole fairly balanced. The lead sentence, for example, stated that charter schools did poorly in the 2009 study and that the 2013 update merely showed that in a few states, charter schools are improving in some areas.” When the headline clashes with the story content, it is often a sign that the editorial opinion of ownership or the editorial board favors the view expressed in the headline.

The continued mediocre performance of charter schools is not surprising. The business model for the charter school dooms it to failure. While parents may people a board of directors of a charter school, the school typically hires a for-profit company (or a for-profit parading as a non–profit) to run the school. Charter schools pay teachers less money than public schools do, primarily because charters are typically non-unionized. While some of the money saved by paying teachers less may or may not finance more equipment, new books or more teachers, we know that a good part of it is going to higher executive salaries and company profit. Now teachers are like attorneys, accountants, engineers and other professionals. While the highest paid may not be the very best, in general the best get paid the most. So with the best teachers taking the public school jobs, charter schools are left with the least experienced and the less competent.

Let’s face it: The sole purpose of the charter school movement is to destroy teachers’ unions and thereby lower the wage rate of all Americans. It’s part of the 30+ year campaign to transfer wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.  This political agenda, shared by virtually all Republicans and many Democrats,  has four main tenets:
  1. Lower taxes on the wealthy.
  2. Reduce government spending on social welfare programs for the poor and near-poor.
  3. Privatize traditional government services, leading to profit-making opportunities for the wealthy
  4. Destroy unions.
There are many things wrong with the American education system. But charter schools don’t really solve any of them. The charter school movement is a failed experiment.

Let’s pull the plug. Let’s ask our elected representatives to outlaw and dismantle charter schools and instead increase aid to education that will put more teachers in the classroom, reduce the size of classes, give students everywhere access to the Internet and computers, extend gifted programs to lower grades and level the playing field between schools in rich and poor neighborhoods.