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“A Diabolical Chicken-And-Egg Conundrum”: Fear Is Why Workers In Red States Vote Against Their Economic Self-Interest

Last week’s massive spill of the toxic chemical MCHM into West Virginia’s Elk River illustrates another benefit to the business class of high unemployment, economic insecurity, and a safety-net shot through with holes. Not only are employees eager to accept whatever job they can get. They are also also unwilling to demand healthy and safe environments.

The spill was the region’s third major chemical accident in five years, coming after two investigations by the federal Chemical Safety Board in the Kanawha Valley, also known as “Chemical Valley,” and repeated recommendations from federal regulators and environmental advocates that the state embrace tougher rules to better safeguard chemicals.

No action was ever taken. State and local officials turned a deaf ear. The storage tank that leaked, owned by Freedom Industries, hadn’t been inspected for decades.

But nobody complained.

Not even now, with the toxins moving down river toward Cincinnati, can the residents of Charleston and the surrounding area be sure their drinking water is safe — partly because the government’s calculation for safe levels is based on a single study by the manufacturer of the toxic chemical, which was never published, and partly because the West Virginia American Water Company, which supplies the drinking water, is a for-profit corporation that may not want to highlight any lingering danger.

So why wasn’t more done to prevent this, and why isn’t there more of any outcry even now?

The answer isn’t hard to find. As Maya Nye, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a citizen’s group formed after a 2008 explosion and fire killed workers at West Virginia’s Bayer CropScience plant in the state, explained to the New York Times: “We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia we don’t want to do anything that pushes industry out.”

Exactly.

I often heard the same refrain when I headed the U.S. Department of Labor. When we sought to impose a large fine on the Bridgestone-Firestone Tire Company for flagrantly disregarding workplace safety rules and causing workers at one of its plants in Oklahoma to be maimed and killed, for example, the community was solidly behind us — that is, until Bridgestone-Firestone threatened to close the plant if we didn’t back down.

The threat was enough to ignite a storm of opposition to the proposed penalty from the very workers and families we were trying to protect. (We didn’t back down and Bridgestone-Firestone didn’t carry out its threat, but the political fallout was intense.)

For years political scientists have wondered why so many working class and poor citizens of so-called “red” states vote against their economic self-interest. The usual explanation is that, for these voters, economic issues are trumped by social and cultural issues like guns, abortion, and race.

I’m not so sure. The wages of production workers have been dropping for thirty years, adjusted for inflation, and their economic security has disappeared. Companies can and do shut down, sometimes literally overnight. A smaller share of working-age Americans hold jobs today than at any time in more than three decades.

People are so desperate for jobs they don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want rules and regulations enforced that might cost them their livelihoods. For them, a job is precious — sometimes even more precious than a safe workplace or safe drinking water.

This is especially true in poorer regions of the country like West Virginia and through much of the South and rural America — so-called “red” states where the old working class has been voting Republican. Guns, abortion, and race are part of the explanation. But don’t overlook economic anxieties that translate into a willingness to vote for whatever it is that industry wants.

This may explain why Republican officials who have been casting their votes against unions, against expanding Medicaid, against raising the minimum wage, against extended unemployment insurance, and against jobs bills that would put people to work, continue to be elected and re-elected. They obviously have the support of corporate patrons who want to keep unemployment high and workers insecure because a pliant working class helps their bottom lines. But they also, paradoxically, get the votes of many workers who are clinging so desperately to their jobs that they’re afraid of change and too cowed to make a ruckus.

The best bulwark against corporate irresponsibility is a strong and growing middle class. But in order to summon the political will to achieve it, we have to overcome the timidity that flows from economic desperation. It’s a diabolical chicken-and-egg conundrum at a the core of American politics today.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, January 15, 2014

January 20, 2014 Posted by | Public Health, Public Safety | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Scourge Of The Wingnut Hole”: Coverage Totals Would Be Far Greater If Not For “Red” States Refusing Medicaid Expansion

We have a reasonably good sense of how many Americans have enrolled in the health care system in recent months, signing up for coverage made available through the Affordable Care Act. For a more ambitious tally, Josh Marshall includes exchanges, Medicaid, young adults staying on their family plans, and those who were able to bypass exchanges to buy ACA-compliant policies directly from insurance carriers, for a grand total of about 10 million.

But every time these numbers are culled, it’s worth remembering that the coverage totals would be far greater were it not for “red” states refusing to accept Medicaid expansion.

The original plan, you’ll recall, was to simply mandate the greater access. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, said states must have a choice as to whether or not to accept the good deal. Most Republican-led states, naturally, rejected the policy, leaving millions behind for no particular reason.

But how many million? The Associated Press published a report this week with a striking figure.

About 5 million people will be without health care next year that they would have gotten simply if they lived somewhere else in America.

They make up a coverage gap in President Barack Obama’s signature health care law created by the domino effects of last year’s Supreme Court ruling and states’ subsequent policy decisions.

This coverage gap clearly needs a name. Ed Kilgore started calling it the “wingnut hole” months ago, and it’s certainly a descriptive phrase. Ryan Cooper added the other day:

It’s worth remembering that the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of the Medicaid expansion through 2016 and 90 percent of the cost afterward. It could very well work out that refusenik states will not even save money because of additional spending on the uninsured in emergency rooms and elsewhere.

But regardless of the pitiful sums involved, make no mistake: This action is utterly gratuitous.

Quite right. In fact, as we’ve discussed many times, Republicans at the state level who refuse Medicaid expansion generally struggle to explain their position in any kind of coherent way.

What’s more, let’s not forget the irony of the larger context: congressional Republicans spent most of their waking hours complaining about a sliver of the population receiving “cancellation notices” through the Affordable Care Act because of changes to the individual market. Indeed, GOP officials routinely claim this will leave 5 million Americans behind with nothing (a total that appears to have been exaggerated by a factor of 500).

And yet, if their concern were genuine, wouldn’t Republicans necessarily be outraged by these 5 million Americans who are suffering because some red-state policymakers are acting out of petty partisan spite?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 3, 2014

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Medicaid Expansion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Sordid Approach To The Uninsured”: Republican’s Increasingly Appear Eager To Punish The Poor Because They’re Poor

Even if the Affordable Care Act is implemented perfectly, and the system works exactly as planned, millions of Americans will go without access to affordable health care. Is it due to a flaw in the law? Not exactly.

The problem is Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion at the state level. If your income is between 100% and 138% of the poverty line, you can qualify for Medicaid and get covered – unless you live in a “red” state where GOP officials have rejected Medicaid expansion. If so, you can (a) move; (b) figure out a way to make more money; or (c) go without.

Just in recent days, we’ve seen reports reinforcing how inexplicable these states’ policies really are. Refusing Medicaid expansion will not only cost states billions, but it will also severely undermine state hospitals, all while hurting struggling families.

Kevin Drum today called it “one of the most sordid acts in recent American history.”

The cost to the states is tiny, and the help it would bring to the poor is immense. It’s paid for by taxes that residents of these states are going to pay regardless of whether they receive any of the benefits. And yet, merely because it has Obama’s name attached to it, they’ve decided that immiserating millions of poor people is worth it. It is hard to imagine a decision more depraved.

Alternatively, Republicans in Congress could agree to fix this problem and allow people without access to Medicaid to qualify for exchange subsidies. But of course they won’t do that either for the same reason.

Conservatives hate it when you accuse them of simply not caring about the poor. Sometimes they have a point. This is not one of those times.

I strongly agree, though I’d just add that it’s amazing to hear Republican governors who reject Medicaid expansion try to present their approach as sensible.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) recently said he refused the policy because he doesn’t like exchange marketplaces, which doesn’t make any sense. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) justified his opposition by saying the health care law is a “mess,” which is shallow even by GOP standards. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) appeared on MSNBC and said he rejected Medicaid expansion because, someday, federal officials may “renege on their promise” to reimburse states.

Has that ever happened? No. Is there any reason to believe it might happen? No. Could Wisconsin bring coverage to struggling families in the meantime, and then drop the policy in the event Washington refused to meet its obligations? Yes, but Walker doesn’t want to.

The larger takeaway here is that Republican officials increasingly appear eager to punish the poor because they’re poor. Indeed, it’s become a common theme in GOP policymaking just in recent weeks: no extension of unemployment benefits, no extension of the status quo on food stamps, no increase in the minimum wage, and wherever possible, no Medicaid expansion, either.

Republicans better hope low-income Americans vote in low numbers in the near future.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 9, 2013

December 10, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Republicans, Uninsured | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Poison Of Ideology”: Republicans Have Even More Pain In Store For Their Base In Poor White Real America

Rick Santorum is right. Not far right, crazy right, piously right or, on most issues, never right. He is all of those things. But under the rubric that even a blind pig can find an acorn every now and then, the moral scourge of the Republican Party is on to something — a greater truth.

Earlier this summer, Santorum said Republicans look like the party of plutocrats, stiffing working people and the poor. The 2012 convention, he noted, was a parade of one-percenters, masters of the universe and company owners.

“But not a single — not a single — factory worker went out there,” he said. “Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them.”

They still don’t care, and the darkening events of what looks to be an autumn of catastrophic failure by a Congress stuffed with extremists will prove Santorum’s point ever more.

Late Thursday, despite pleas from Catholic bishops and evangelicals, the Republican-dominated House passed a bill that would deprive 3.8 million people of assistance to buy food next year. By coincidence, this is almost the exact amount of people who have managed to remain just above the poverty line because of that very aid, the Census Bureau reported a few days ago.

A Republican majority that refuses to govern on other issues found the votes to shove nearly 4 million people back into poverty, joining 46.5 million at a desperation line that has failed to improve since the dawn of the Great Recession. It’s a heartless bill, aimed to hurt. Republicans don’t see it that way, of course. They think too many of their fellow citizens are cheats and loafers, dining out on lobster.

Certainly there are frauds among the one in seven Americans getting help from the program formerly known as food stamps. But who are the others, the easy-to-ignore millions who will feel real pain with these cuts? As it turns out, most of them live in Red State, Real People America. Among the 254 counties where food stamp use doubled during the economic collapse, Mitt Romney won 213 of them, Bloomberg News reported. Half of Owsley County, Ky., is receiving federal food aid. Half.

You can’t get any more Team Red than Owsley County; it is 98 percent white, 81 percent Republican, per the 2012 presidential election. And that hardscrabble region has the distinction of being the poorest in the nation, with the lowest household income of any county in the United States, the Census Bureau found in 2010.

Since nearly half of Owsley’s residents also live below the poverty line, it would seem logical that the congressman who represents the area, Hal Rogers, a Republican, would be interested in, say, boosting income for poor working folks. But Rogers joined every single Republican in the House earlier this year in voting down a plan to raise the minimum wage over the next two years to $10.10 an hour.

The argument holding back higher pay — a theory that Republicans accept without challenge — is that raising wages for the poorest workers would be bad for companies, and bad for hiring.

But experience debunks this convenient political shelter. Washington State has the highest state-mandated minimum wage in the country, $9.19 an hour, and an unemployment rate that has been running below the national average. It’s not all Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft in Seattle, either. In the pine-forested sliver of eastern Washington, a high-wage state bumps right up against low-wage Idaho. Fast-food outlets flourish in Washington, the owners have said, because they can retain workers longer, while Idaho struggles to find qualified people to hold entry-level jobs.

Costco, they of the golf-cart-size containers of gummy bears, has long paid wages and benefits well above the industry average for big-box stores, and it hasn’t hurt the bottom line. The stock is up 79 percent over the last five years. Costco, to its credit, is urging Congress to raise the minimum wage. But that’s one big business Republicans will not listen to, because it breaks with the heartless credo of the new G.O.P.

The movement for higher minimum pay is raging through the states just now, with ballot initiatives and legislation plans. The people, in this case, will have to circumvent a Congress bent on actively trying to hurt the poor.

Republicans have more pain in store for their base in poor white America. Shutting down government, for one, will cause a ripple effect that will be hardest on those living paycheck-to-paycheck. The biggest obsession, the Moby-Dick of the right wing, is making sure millions of people do not have access to affordable health care. This week, Republicans drew the line for any doubters: they will wreck lives to blow up the health care law.

You have to wonder where this animus for those in the economic basement comes from. It’s too easy to say Republicans hate the poor. Limousine liberals can seem just as insensitive. And if Republicans were offering some genuinely creative approaches to helping the 26 million Americans who self-identified as “lower class” in a recent survey, they would deserve a listen. Tax cuts, the party’s solution to everything, do nothing for people who pay no federal income tax.

What’s at work here is the poison of ideology. Underlying the food assistance fight is the idea that the poor are lazy, and deserve their fate — the Ayn Rand philosophy. You don’t see this same reasoning applied to those Red State agricultural-industrialists living high off farm subsidies, and that’s why Republicans have separated the two major recipient groups of federal food aid. Subsidized cotton growers cannot possibly be equated with someone trying to stretch macaroni into three meals.

But Republican House leaders do have some empathy — for themselves. National Review reported this week that Representative Phil Gingrey, a hard-right conservative who wants to be the next senator from Georgia, complained in a private meeting about being “stuck here making $172,000 a year.” To say the least, he doesn’t yet qualify for food assistance.

 

By: Timothy Egan, The New York Times, September 19, 2013

September 20, 2013 Posted by | Poverty, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Forget The Pundits”: Red-State Women Are The Ones Fighting Toughest Battles On Behalf Of Women And They’ll Transform America

Public Policy Polling is out with a new survey showing that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has actually increased his lead over state Sen. Wendy Davis in the wake of her nationally heralded filibuster against SB 5, the draconian antiabortion legislation Perry’s trying to pass in a second special section. It should be noted that Davis isn’t even a candidate for governor at this point, so this is a theoretical matchup absent any kind of campaign.

Still, the poll numbers are likely to bolster the already strong cynicism of Texas political observers about the chance that Davis could beat Perry if she fulfilled the dream of many liberal women nationwide and ran against him next year. Similarly, most journalists dismiss the chance that Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lunderman Grimes can knock off Sen. Mitch McConnell. But the rise of these red-state women is good news for Democrats, even if pundits say they can’t beat right-wing veterans (and national villains among liberals) like McConnell and Perry next year (and I’m not conceding that here). In most red states, the best hope for Democrats is a rising coalition of Latinos, black people, Asians, young voters and white women. Davis and Grimes could accelerate the future.

I’ve been struck by even liberal Texas reporters minimizing Davis’ chances, and suggesting that the national groundswell of support will hurt her in her home state. Writing in the New York Times, Texas Tribune reporter Jay Root reports that it “puzzles” Matthew Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist, that Davis and her backers “are allying themselves with Hollywood actresses and handing Mr. Perry the ideological battle he so desperately needs to revive his standing — at least with the right,” Root writes.

“The best thing to do with Rick Perry is to make people laugh at him,” Dowd told Root. “If you get into a sort of ideological thing, and into a back and forth, that’s how Rick Perry survives.”

Another Texas Tribune writer, Ross Ramsey, wrote a piece headlined “For Davis, Opportunity Knocks at Inopportune Time,” arguing that the Fort Worth Democrat is little known outside her district and the state party is poorly organized to give her a statewide lift. “It’s her bad luck that she’s the fastest runner on a team that can’t seem to find its way to the track,” he writes. But then he concludes his piece by seeming to contradict it, claiming that if Davis doesn’t run now, “she’ll never have a better shot.” That’s puzzling – to follow his logic, she’d have a better shot if Democrats were better organized in a few years. So I’m not convinced anyone knows for sure that Davis can’t beat Perry.

The truth is, I’m a lifelong blue-state resident, and I don’t presume to suggest I know Texas politics better than these men. I was convinced Rick Perry humiliated and hurt himself with his laughable 2012 presidential run, where he famously forgot the agencies he wanted to cut and made sweet love to a bottle of maple syrup. Instead today he’s stronger than ever with his Texas GOP base. But I do know this: Red-state Democratic women are the ones fighting the toughest battles on behalf of women’s rights – and they seem pretty happy about the attention.

On Tuesday alone, new abortion restrictions took effect in five red states — Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi and South Dakota – all passed by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors. Kansas’ new law requires abortion doctors to tell their patients right-wing lies: that an abortion puts them at high risk for breast cancer (totally unfounded by science) and that after 20 weeks, a fetus feels pain and “abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.” Again, medical experts say neither is true. In South Dakota, women must wait 72 hours before obtaining an abortion – and weekends don’t count, which means some women will wait six days. Indiana women must undergo ultrasounds. In Mississippi and Alabama, women can no longer obtain a prescription for an early abortion drug via teleconference; they must now go to a doctor’s office. The hypocrites who claim to oppose late-term abortion are ensuring that all abortions will at least be later-term in these states.

Even as women’s votes were credited with reelecting President Obama on the national level, statehouse Republicans are restricting their rights. So national feminists and Democrats have got to turn their attention to these red states, along with purple states like Wisconsin and Ohio where Scott Walker and John Kasich are acting like they govern Mississippi when it comes to women’s rights. Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner’s decision to run for secretary of state is welcome news, in a state known for its attempts to limit voting rights (as well as its failure to elect any black Democrats statewide, ever).

We know that eventually, Texas will be a blue state. That day will arrive sooner if Latino voter turnout rises. Texas women’s groups are paying a lot of attention to the Latina vote, since Latinas are less likely than other groups to go to the polls. Young Latinas are also more likely to be pro-choice, so this is an opportunity to use this battle to make more of them voters.

At any rate, I find it encouraging to see national Democrats paying attention to Texas, with projects like Battleground Texas driven by Obama campaign veterans, most notably Jeremy Bird. Nobody expected Obama to pour money into Texas or Kentucky in 2012; the goal was to win, and there were plenty of states where he had a better chance, as well as some purple states, like Ohio, that he couldn’t afford to lose. But it’s unconscionable for national Democrats to ignore opportunities – and need – in the state that gave us Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan.

Likewise, I’d like to see national Democrats more engaged in the Grimes race. She’s gotten criticism for a lackluster announcement on Monday and her Web presence is minimal. McConnell is unpopular in Kentucky and knocking him off in 2014, while unlikely, would be a sign that Democrats will leave no state behind. McConnell’s campaign gave Grimes a favor Tuesday by releasing a bizarre autotuned ad that made fun of her name but actually served to get me to be able to type it from memory. (Oh, and they misspelled McConnell’s name in the ad.) So his team may not be the second coming of Obama 2012.

Meanwhile, the Texas battle over abortion rages on, with the Legislature expected to vote next week in the second special session called by Perry. I got into a little Twitter discussion with Matthew Dowd, after I Tweeted that he’d “trashed” the involvement of Hollywood actresses in the Times piece. “Wasn’t trashing celebrities, was just saying [Davis] only helps Perry by involving national media and celebs.” Point taken; trashing was useful shorthand in 140 characters; “dismissing” or “disdaining” would have been more accurate.

But Dowd knows Texas past and present, not necessarily its future. I’m not ready to concede that Planned Parenthood’s wrangling television stars like “Law and Order: SVU’s” Stephanie March (a Texas native), Lisa Edelstein of “House” or Connie Britton, who played Tami Taylor in the legendary Texas football series “Friday Night Lights,” are just “Hollywood” liberals who are going to drive more Texans into the arms of Rick Perry.

That PPP poll that found Davis trailing Perry also found that she’d doubled her in-state name recognition, from 34 percent to 68 percent, since January. More significant, she is now the best-liked Texas political figure among those PPP tested statewide — and the third-best-known after Rick Perry and Ted Cruz.  That’s not bad for a Fort Worth lady in tennis shoes. National Democrats are going to keep paying attention to Texas; the women of Texas deserve no less.

 

By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, July 2, 2013

July 3, 2013 Posted by | Women, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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