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“They Get You Coming And Going”: In America, Being Poor Can Be An Expensive Proposition

Today I came across this very interesting, albeit depressing, bit of data. It’s an analysis by a travel site called Hopper that shows that it costs more to fly in states that have the lowest median incomes.

For example, the study found that in Mississippi, the poorest state, a “good deal” round-trip flight costs about $400, while in Maryland, the state with the highest income, an equivalent ticket costs around $300. The researchers also found that “typical round-trip airfare declines by $2.30 for every additional $1000 in median household income.” The reasons for the increased prices in the poorer states include “average distance traveled, demand density, and airline competition.” Presumably, there’s less demand and less airline competition in poor areas of the country because people there have less money for leisure travel, and also because those locales have less economic development and thus less business travel.

The higher price of air travel for low-income folks is yet another data point that paints a bigger picture: in America, being poor can be an expensive proposition. There are countless, painful examples of this. Food and other basic items tend to cost more in poor neighborhoods. The poor lack access to credit and so are easy prey for payday lenders charging exorbitant interest rates. Poor people are more apt to bounce checks; hello, fees for insufficient funds! There are also late fees for credit card payments — you know, the kind of thing listed in print so fine you need a magnifying glass to be capable of reading about it. But my personal favorites are those extra charges they tack on for restoring utilities they shut off because you couldn’t pay your bill on time in the first place. “They get you coming and going,” as my old man used to say.

In her classic book, Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich described a host of other expensive indignities that plague the working poor. For example, many of her low-wage co-workers were living in hotel rooms, which actually were far costlier, on a monthly basis, than local apartments. But the workers couldn’t move into the apartments because they lacked the month’s rent plus security deposit the landlord required. Many low-wage jobs also require uniforms, the cost of which comes out of the worker’s paycheck, or cars, which the workers are expected to maintain themselves.

There are even darker examples. I wonder how many Americans have put off going to the doctor because they lacked health insurance, sought treatment only when their symptoms were advanced, and ended up being bankrupted by medical bills as a result.

Many of the examples I’ve cited in this post could be greatly improved by some well-targeted regulatory fixes. The rights of workers and consumers against employers, the banks, and the credit card companies need to be vigorously championed, and in some cases, re-invented for our new digital era. There’s no earthly justification other than greed for the $35 bank overdraft ripoff, or the cell phone company gouging you to restore your service because your payment is late. It’s also long past time we bring re-regulation to the airlines. A more regulated airline industry might help bring down fares in certain overpriced markets. Our 30-year old experiment with airline deregulation has hardly been a rousing success — read the excellent 2012 Washington Monthly magazine article by Phillip Longman and Lina Khan for more information on this score.

In addition to more consumer regulation, we also need a much higher minimum wage and a far more generous safety net for poor people in this country. If poor people had more economic resources to begin with — if they simply had enough money to pay their bills on time, and to save a little money for a rainy day — they would never be forced to pay such an outrageously high price for being poor.

 

By: Kathleen Geier, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 3, 2014

May 4, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Poor and Low Income, Poverty | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Rick Scott Gets An Earful In Florida”: Talking To Regular People Who Don’t Have A Script To Follow Could End Your Career

There’s a reason so many politicians embrace carefully managed, pre-scripted events: they never know what actual people are going to say. The spontaneity may be refreshing for the rest of us, but for politicians and their aides, it’s frustrating when the public goes “off-message.”

Almost exactly two years ago, this happened to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Pennsylvania, when aides arranged for the candidate to chat with a group of regular folks about the economy. One voter said, “None of us like to pay more taxes, but sometimes that’s necessary.” Another added, “It’s a necessary evil.” “Right, right,” a third person said as the group nodded.

The Republican presidential hopeful didn’t do too many unscripted events after that.

This week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) ran into similar trouble. The Republican governor, facing a tough re-election fight, is heavily invested in condemning the Affordable Care Act, so he visited a South Florida senior center for a roundtable chat with retirees he assumed would agree with him.

Oops.

The 20 seniors assembled for a roundtable with Scott at the Volen Center were largely content with their Medicare coverage and didn’t have negative stories to recount. And some praised Obamacare – a program that Scott frequently criticizes.

“I’m completely satisfied,” Harvey Eisen, 92, a West Boca resident, told Scott.

Eisen told the governor he wasn’t sure “if, as you say,” there are Obamacare-inspired cuts to Medicare. But even if there are, that would be OK. “I can’t expect that me as a senior citizen are going to get preferential treatment when other programs are also being cut.”

Ruthlyn Rubin, 66, of Boca Raton, told the governor that people who are too young for Medicare need the health coverage they get from Obamacare. If young people don’t have insurance, she said, everyone else ends up paying for their care when they get sick or injured and end up in the hospital.

Twisting the knife, Rubin added, “People were appalled at Social Security.  They were appalled at Medicare when it came out. I think these major changes take some people aback. But I think we have to be careful not to just rely on the fact that we’re seniors and have an entitlement to certain things…. We’re all just sitting here taking it for granted that because we have Medicare we don’t want to lose one part of it. That’s wrong to me. I think we have to spread it around. This is the United States of America. It’s not the United States of senior citizens.”

The underlying point of Scott’s visit was to try to complain about Medicare Advantage reforms and how awful recent “cuts” must be for seniors. But when the governor asked one elderly woman if she’d seen any changes, she said, “Not really.” Another member of the roundtable said he’s “very happy” with the current coverage. A third person said he’s had “no problems.” A fourth said she and her husband are “very pleased.”

When Scott asked if they’ve found doctors opting out of Medicare, most said, “No.”

It was at this point that the governor probably decided he no longer wants to talk to regular people who don’t have a script to follow.

For the record, as Scott probably knows, these so-called “cuts” to Medicare Advantage aren’t really cuts to beneficiaries. At issue are Medicare cost-savings embraced by the Obama administration through the Affordable Care Act. The so-called “cuts” are changes to the way in which the government reimburses insurance companies, which have been overpaid in the Medicare Advantage program.

What’s more, congressional Republicans – not exactly a moderate bunch – have already endorsed and voted for these “cuts.”

It’s likely the governor understands this, but hopes to fool voters. If yesterday was any indication, his efforts aren’t going well.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 30, 2014

May 1, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, Rick Scott | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Stuck In The First Stage Of Grief”: GOP Reflexively Making Themselves Feel Better About A Reality That’s Causing Them Pain

At a press conference last week, President Obama announced a figure that was hard to even imagine a month ago: 8 million consumers signed up for private insurance through exchange marketplaces during the Affordable Care Act’s open-enrollment period. Obama also took a moment to chide Republicans for having been wrong about practically every aspect of the debate.

“I recognize that their party is going through the stages of grief,” he said, “and we’re not at acceptance yet.”

That sounds about right, though I’m not sure the GOP is “going through the stages of grief” so much as it’s stuck on the first one. If the process is believed to have five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – we have quite a ways to go before “acceptance” is even on the horizon.

Denial still dominates.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said Monday he believes the uninsured rate in his state has increased since implementation of the 2010 health care reform law.

“It’s hard to get accurate numbers on anything,” Huelskamp told his constituents at a town hall in Salina, Kan., according to video posted by Eagle Community Television. “But the numbers we see today is that – as I understand them – we believe there are more people uninsured today in Kansas than there were before the president’s health care plan went into effect. And I thought the goal was to bring more people into insurance.”

There are a wide variety of counts when it comes to determining just how many uninsured Americans have been able to get coverage, but all of the reports have something important in common: they all show the rate of the uninsured going down, not up. We can discuss exactly how many, whether that’s in line with expectations, whether that’s enough to sustain the larger system, and why progress is happening faster in blue states than red states.

But to argue that the number of uninsured people is climbing is comparable to arguing that the federal budget deficit is getting larger; the planet is experiencing global cooling; and Obama has pushed use of executive orders to new heights.

Oh wait, conservative Republicans often believe all of those bogus claims, too.

Obviously, the problem isn’t limited to Huelskamp. On Friday, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he doesn’t believe the Obama administration’s enrollment totals, calling the figures “all smoke and mirrors.” On Thursday, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested consumers receiving ACA subsidies to defray the costs of coverage may be engaged in “fraud.”

Much of the Republican establishment quickly embraced the “cooking the books” conspiracy theory, which was soon after followed by the Census Bureau conspiracy theory.

The right doesn’t bother with evidence to bolster any of this – evidence is irrelevant. Denial isn’t about rationality; it’s about reflexively making one feel better about a reality that’s causing them pain.

That said, GOP officials aren’t just embracing denial, they’re swimming in it in the most self-indulgent fashion possible. Republicans almost seem to be enjoying their distaste for health care reality, seemingly eager to one up their far-right colleagues.

Let’s also not brush past the “heads I win, tails you lose” problem – “Obamacare” critics believe the numbers are correct and reliable when they point to facts Republicans want to hear. Enrollment totals are low? This is proof that conservatives were right all along and that the ACA is a failure. Enrollment totals soared in March? This is proof that the White House is perpetrating a fraud – because conservatives were right all along and that the ACA is a failure.

It’s become effectively impossible under conditions like these for the two sides to even have a conversation about health policy. Paul Krugman’s take over the weekend rings true:

Not a day goes by without some prominent Republican politician or pundit insisting that the enrollment numbers are phony, that more people are losing insurance than gaining it, etc.. I know that’s what the base believes, because it’s what they hear from Rush and Fox. But you would think that important people would have someone around who has a clue, who knows that enrollment data and multiple surveys are all telling the same story of unexpected success. OK, maybe not – if famous senators don’t have anyone to clue them in about BLS data, they might really still be living in the bubble. But that’s really their choice.

And the point is that with enrollment more or less closed for 2014, there’s not much point in spinning. OK, maybe if you can keep up the pretense all the way to November, you can slightly sway base voters for the midterms. But even that’s doubtful – by the fall, we’re going to have a very clear picture of how things went; and the shape of that picture has already been determined.

I guess that what gets me is the – to use the technical term – wussiness of it all. Isn’t there any space on the right for people who sell themselves as tough-minded, who condemn Obamacare on principle but warn their followers that it’s not on the verge of collapse? Is the whole party so insecure, so unable to handle the truth, that it automatically shoots anyone bearing bad news?

I’m going to assume those are rhetorical questions, because the answer seems pretty obvious.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 21, 2014

April 22, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, GOP, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“GOP’s Clueless Ploy To Woo Women”: Accuse Them Of Whining And Lying!

If you liked GOP messaging on contraception – from Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Sandra Fluke to Mike Huckabee insisting women who support the ACA’s contraception mandate “cannot control their libidos” – you’ll love the latest Republican campaign against pay equity, newly minted for Equal Pay Day.

Fox News may be the funniest, insisting there’s no such thing as pay inequity — except at the White House, where an American Enterprise Institute study found women still earning less than men. From the Heritage Foundation comes this wisdom: “Equal pay and minimum wage: Two ways to hurt women in the workplace.”  No really, that’s the headline. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has called the pay gap “nonsense,” while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called it “bogus.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called equal pay “the left’s latest bizarre obsession” and accused Harry Reid of “blowing a few kisses” to advocates.

Essentially the GOP campaign against pay equity advocates comes down to telling women to stop lying.

Pay inequity means that women lose an average of more than $400,000 in wages over the course of their lifetimes. The infamous “77 cents on the dollar” figure approximates the overall difference between men and women, and conservatives like to claim it compares apples and oranges: Female teachers to male congressmen, for instance. The truth is, multiple studies by the American Association of University Women and others show that the gap exists across all professions and all education levels. In some fields, it’s wider, in some it’s smaller, but it’s omnipresent. And it’s much worse for African-American and Latino women, who make 62 and 54 percent of white men’s wages, respectively. (Asian American women suffer the smallest wage gap, earning 87 percent.)

Democrats believe they can ride those issues to victory in 2014, despite a tough climate for vulnerable incumbents and the propensity of its base to turn out for presidential elections but skip the midterms. One key will be turning out unmarried women, who have become one of the party’s most reliable constituencies after African-Americans. A recent survey by Democracy Corps shows that unmarried women are less likely to vote in 2014 than in 2012 – but that a strong women’s economic agenda could send many more of them to the polls.

Pay equity plus equal health insurance are the policies that score highest among unmarried women voters in the Democracy Corps poll. Right behind are proposals for paid family leave and affordable access to childcare. Democracy Corps found those issues had the capacity to significantly increase the turnout of unmarried women in 2014. Once they were read a list of women’s economic agenda policies favored by Democrats, the percent saying they were “almost certain” to vote in the midterm jumped from 66 to 83 percent.

And although those zany Heritage Foundation scholars last week told Republicans that the secret to solving their problems with unmarried women was to get more of them married, Democracy Corps found that unmarried women were skeptical of GOP policies to encourage marriage. Two-thirds favored greater emphasis on policies that enable work-family balance, to help women and children rise out of poverty, as opposed to 24 percent who backed policies that encouraged marriage.

That’s why President Obama signed two executive orders to narrow the wage gap. One prohibits federal contractors from punishing workers who disseminate information about wages (one way employers hide wage discrimination). Obama will also direct the Labor Department to collect data from federal contractors detailing wages by gender and race.  Obama is also urging Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act – which it won’t – and a minimum wage hike, which is also unlikely.

The Democracy Corps poll also makes clear what many Democrats have suspected: Women like the fact that the Affordable Care Act prevents insurance companies from charging them more than men. Rep. Paul Ryan, who insists the GOP will still push to repeal Obamacare, is handing Democrats another weapon, the poll found.

There was one other interesting finding in the Democracy Corps survey: Unmarried women are very concerned about preserving Medicare and Social Security. That led pollsters to advise Democrats to include those issues in their women’s economic agenda. It makes sense: Women live longer, and are more economically insecure at every stage of life. Unmarried women in particular rely on Social Security and Medicare in old age. It’s just another reason centrist Dems should avoid the lure of the “grand bargain” that ensnared the president and his allies for years.

Earlier this year, a CNN poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe Republicans don’t understand women. That increased to 64 percent among women over 50, who represent a pillar of the GOP base. So smart, aggressive messaging on women’s economic issues could not only help Democrats turn out their base, but conceivably cut into the GOP’s. Republicans are unlikely to help their cause with a strategy that essentially calls women who worry about pay inequity “liars.”

 

By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, April 8, 2014

April 9, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Gender Gap | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“An Endless Battle”: The Next GOP Scheme To Manufacture Obamacare “Horror Stories”

After the administration met a target of seven million new private insurance signups under the Affordable Care Act, and after pretty much every Obamacare “horror story” featured in a Koch-funded attack ad has turned out to be either completely false or extremely misleading at best, and after even some conservatives are telling their brethren to stop fooling themselves into thinking the ACA will inevitably implode, you might think that we could now start having a reasonable, factually grounded discussion about how we might improve the ACA going forward.

No such luck. In fact, there’s a new misleading “horror story” on its way: the worker whose hours are being cut back so their boss won’t have to comply with the ACA’s employer mandate. Watch out for it, because it’s coming.

Just as before, the decisions of private companies to attempt to screw over ordinary people are going to be blamed not on those companies, but on Obamacare. Before it was insurance companies, who tried to shunt their customers into overpriced policies when cheaper options were available on the exchanges. How many news stories did we see that featured someone’s anger at an insurer’s letter telling them they should sign up for a new, more costly plan, without even asking what other options the person had?

This time, the “horror story” will feature workers whose employers are trimming their hours back to avoid having to give them health insurance. Yesterday the House passed a bill, with every Republican voting in favor (along with 18 conservative Democrats) changing the law’s definition of full-time work from 30 hours a week to 40 hours a week. The purpose is to allow an employer to cut a full-time worker down to 39 hours and claim they’re “part time,” to avoid giving them health coverage (as it stands now, they’d have to cut them down to 29 hours).

President Obama would veto any such bill if it actually passed both houses. But still: this is the opening of a new front in the endless battle over the ACA.

So some context is in order. The ACA mandated that all companies with 50 or more workers offer health coverage. It’s vital to understand that this mandate actually affects only a small portion of workers, because most companies of that size already offer coverage. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 91 percent of firms with between 50 and 199 employees offer coverage today, before any mandate has taken effect. For companies with 200 or more employees, it’s virtually all of them (over 99 percent). Even most companies with fewer workers — 85 percent of those with between 25 and 49 employees — offer coverage.

So if, in the coming days, you see a story about an employer that’s trying to find ways not to cover their employees, the first thing to remember is that this an employer who is not giving their workers the benefits most people get. The second thing to remember is that the mandate has already been delayed. Companies with between 50 and 99 workers now have until 2016 to get their workers insured.

To be clear, there’s an argument for restructuring the employer mandate completely; there are other ways you could make sure that employees are covered. And as we learned in the Hobby Lobby case, the mandate isn’t truly a mandate; if a firm wants, it can decline to cover its workers, and pay a tax (which will cost a lot less than health coverage) to help defray the cost of them getting insurance through the exchanges.

I don’t even believe that people should be getting insurance through their employers at all; the fact that we do is an artifact of history that doesn’t have much practical rationale, particularly now (it started during World War II, when wage controls meant employers couldn’t give raises, so they began offering health benefits instead). But once coverage is required from all mid-size and large firms, it will be part of the cost of doing business for all of them — just as it is today for nearly all of them.

And by the way, this is true of lots of regulations: minimum wage laws, worker safety laws, laws against dumping toxic waste in the creek behind your factory, and a whole host of other laws that may increase a company’s expenses but get worked into the prices they charge for their goods and services.

As long as this is the system we have and there’s a mandate scheduled to take effect in 2016, we should be honest about what it means. If the claims about people getting dropped from individual coverage have taught us anything, it’s that whenever we see a new “Obamacare horror story,” it’s probably bogus. And this one will be no exception.

 

By: Paul Waldman, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, April 4, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, GOP, Obamacare | , , , , , | 1 Comment

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