04 Jul

For the truth about being squeezed in America, go ask ALICE

According the U.S. government, if you’re in a family of four earning more than $25,100 a year, you’re not living in poverty.

But according to just about anyone else, if that’s your income and you’re not poor, you’re not living in the United States.

And certainly not in Portland.

Explaining things that everybody knows but the government doesn’t understand might seem a bottomless mission, but the national United Way has taken a crack at a piece of it. In a project with the appropriately Through-the-Looking-Glass name Alice, it calculates the income actually needed for a stable – and sufficiently fed – life in 16 participating states, including Oregon. The name actually stands for “Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” a description of the squeezed working families that are above the government’s concern but below any level of financial security.

As the report says, “ALICE is your child care worker, your parent on Social Security, the cashier at your supermarket, the gas attendant, the salesperson at your big box store, your waitress, a home health aide, an office clerk. ALICE cannot always pay the bills, has little or nothing in savings, and is forced to make tough choices such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent. One unexpected car repair or medical bill can push these financially strapped families over the edge.”
Looking at life from their perspective – looking at it not from the bottom, but from knowing that you could at any moment suddenly end up there – the numbers of survival look very different from the federal poverty figures.
In Multnomah County, ALICE calculates that a family of two adults, a preschooler and an infant would need $73,032 to cover its expenses, with the biggest costs including housing, food, transportation, health care, child care and taxes. The feds figure that 13 percent of the population of Oregon’s largest county lives in poverty; ALICE sees the number as closer to 38 percent.

ALICE’s income figure is not, points out Alejandro Queral, director of community impact for the United Way of Columbia-Willamette, an extravagant number; an Oregon self-sufficiency standard estimated by the University of Washington runs to $84,000. ALICE, says Queral, provides “a measure of poverty more realistic than the federal standard.”

These calculation won’t change the feds’ numbers, but they explain some things – such as why Oregon food pantries report heavy visits from working families, whom the government may not consider poor but whose cupboards offer a different interpretation. It explains why the state of Oregon will provide food stamps to families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty levels, and why Oregon tries to help low-income working families with its Earned Income Tax Credit, aimed particularly at low-income families with children. Looking at the ALICE numbers, Queral sees the state EITC as a vital tool with more possibilities.
But the realities of the numbers, and of families’ lives, are a long ways away from Washington, D.C., where in June the House of Representatives narrowly passed a farm bill that would tighten food stamp eligibility and impose work requirements on many applicants – limits that Republican supporters praised as providing a path out of poverty. This thinking is based on the belief that food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), is full of healthy adults refusing to work, instead living large on their average $120-a-month in food support. Yet most people getting SNAP help are children, elderly or disabled. Most of those capable of work are working, but – as the ALICE report makes clear – not earning enough to feed their families.

“I worked at Legal Aid,” recalls Portland Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, who estimates that the bill could knock as many as 65,000 Oregonians off food stamps. “You pretty quickly learn that people are not sitting at home by choice.”

Actually, not too many people capable of working are sitting at home at all – and as the ALICE report shows, you don’t have to be sitting at home to be badly squeezed, and very possibly hungry.

The House has just passed a farm bill likely to make that worse. But a farm bill that preserves the mission of food stamps has been passed by the Senate, 86-11. Supporters are counting on the Senate to hold up the food safety net when the bills go to conference.

“Oregon is one of the hungriest states in the country. We have to do everything we can to ensure children and disabled Oregonians and Americans don’t go hungry,” says the state’s junior senator, Jeff Merkley. “As we work to reconcile our farm bill with the House bill—which imposes detrimental work requirements on SNAP recipients—I will push my colleagues to support our most vulnerable community members, and make sure millions of Americans don’t go hungry.”

There are more American families in a financial squeeze than we know, or like to think about; go ask ALICE. There are things we could do to help, or at least we could try to keep from making things worse.

Congress, and the rest of us, could listen to what we’re hearing from ALICE.

Or we could just head deeper down the rabbit hole.

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website.

13 May

A vital time to defend our democracy

Nice to be here. I have spoken to this group a couple of times before, so you’d think I’d be accustomed to it. But the problem is, that while I’m happy to be speaking to the same group, I’m speaking in a different world.

In politics, it seem like everything we thought we knew was wrong, and we’re in a world we don’t recognize. You could say we’re in a new normal – except that while it’s new, you can’t say it’s normal.
In media, it’s a completely different landscape, and might look even more different by the time I’m finished speaking.

A little while ago, President Trump, in the major activity of his presidency – tweeting – complained in passing that there were two different things that James Comey should be in jail for, leaking and nbut ot prosecuting Hillary Clinton.

Now, James Comey is not my favorite person, and there are things I think he’s done wrong – really, really wrong – but I would not say he should be in jail. And due to some oversight, I’m not even president.

James Comey – who is not actually going to jail — pointed out how strange this was.

“This is not some tin pot dictatorship where the leader of the country gets to say, ‘The people I don’t like go to jail …Some tweets this past couple of days that I should be in jail. The president of the United States just said that a private citizen should be jailed. And I think the reaction of most of us was, “Meh, that’s another one of those things.” This is not normal. This is not OK. There’s a danger that we will become numb to it, and we will stop noticing the threats to our norms.”

Can’t say we didn’t see this coming. A vivid memory of the 2016 Republican convention was Gen. Michael Flynn, later to be briefly Trump’s national security advisor, leading a chant of “Lock her up!” less than a year before pleading guilty himself.

The chant, and the theme, reappears in Republican politics.

In West Virginia, unsuccessful Senate primary candidate Don Blankenship ran an ad that says: “We don’t need to investigate our president. We need to arrest Hillary … Lock her up!”

(Blankenship may have a particular insight, since he recently spent a year in federal prison for violations of mining safety laws that led to the death of 29 miners.)

Nearby in Indiana, one GOP Senate candidates has bashed “Crooked Hillary Clinton,” and another said a about the Mueller investigation, “Nothing’s been turned up except that Hillary Clinton is the real guilty party here.”

11 R House members call for criminal referrals about Clinton, Comey, Loretta Lynch, Andrew McCabe, and some Justice Dept. people you’ve never heard of, guilty of lack of prosecution of Clinton, and undue questions about Trump.

New York Rep. Claudia Tenney’s campaign has released a petition email calling for the imprisonment of Comey, Clinton, Loretta Lynch, McCabe. Tenney’s website urges, Sign the petition: Lock her up
The suggestion that opposition to Trump is criminal is not the only assault on dissent. Commenting on D opposition to confirming nominees, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – the one whose feelings were so hurt at the White House correspondents dinner – declared, “Look, at some point, Democrats have to decide whether they love this country more than they hate this president.”

After Trump complained in a speech that Democrats failed to give sufficient standing ovations at the State of the Union, some listeners yelled “Treason!” and Trump grinned and agreed it was treasonous. Later he insisted he was joking, but noted that Democrats “certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

Beyond attacks, Trump offers threatening hints about his opponents. Attacking Ted Cruz during the 2016 Republican race, he warned, “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!”
After firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump threatened that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking!”

There weren’t.

Last month, denouncing Montana Sen. Jon Tester for revelations about the failed Veterans Department nominee Ronny Jackson, Trump blustered, “I know things about Tester that I could say, too, and if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”

Long before running for president, when Trump was claiming national attention by challenging Obama’s citizenship, he warned, “I have people that have been studying [Obama’s birth certificate] and they cannot believe what they’re finding.” Shortly afterward, Obama released his long-form birth certificate, and Trump’s investigators’ astounding discoveries were never heard of again.

The Washington Post calculated that as president, Trump has offered 3,001 falsehoods. That was last week; the number must be considerably higher now.

It’s clear why the Oxford Dictionaries declared the 2016 Word of the Year to be “Post-Truth.”
But the greater danger is the nature of the dishonesty.

Trump has attacked every part of the legal system, charging that it’s “rigged,” calling it “a joke and a laughingstock.” He has denounced judges and the FBI and his own attorney general, for refusal to do his bidding, which he considers a lack of credibility. When a federal judge blocked an early version of his Muslim ban, Trump called him a “so-called judge.” When the scam that was Trump University went to court – and Trump ended up paying $25 million in penalties – he complained that the federal judge involved had Mexican roots, and couldn’t be fair.

In passing, last month Trump, speaking to a friendly audience in Michigan, asked if there were any Hispanics there, and surfed on the wave of boos. When was the last time a president of the United States joined a crowd in deriding an ethnic group?

Trump has attacked his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not protecting Trump against investigations, and said he regrets appointing him. He’s said that the Justice Department and the FBI are highly corrupt at the top levels – a charge that he repeats whenever there’s a new revelation about something about his campaign being investigated – and has fired the director and the assistant director of the FBI.

As someone who grew up during the Cold War, it’s a serious adjustment for me to have a president – a Republican president – who thinks the FBI are the bad guys and the Russians are the good guys.

Of course, you might not want to believe any of this, since I produce what the president constantly calls “Fake News,” as he denounces journalists for reporting things that he’d rather people didn’t know. All politicians have problems with the press, but they don’t generally call the press “the enemy of the people,” or tell an audience about the media, “These people, they hate your guts.” Other politicians don’t threaten to change the libel laws so that they can collect a lot of money from newspapers and networks saying things they don’t like. All presidents like some media outlets better than others, but generally they don’t have one outlet functioning as the official state medium, the way the Trump administration operates with Fox News.

This week, the administration hinted that media operations reporting the wrong kind of story might lose their Whiter House accreditation, and not get to listen to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ explanations that what they’re seeing with their own eyes is not actually happening.

Following the recent White House Correspondents dinner, when some people thought comedian Michelle Wolf was too harsh to the administration, Margaret Talev from the organization apologized afterward that “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press.”

As Tonto once said to the Lone Ranger, what do you mean “our”?

The combination is overwhelming. To quote, “Today we have a president who continually undermines our most basic institutions, from attacking an independent judiciary and law enforcement agents, to belittling a free press that has been a bedrock of our nation since its founding, to normalizing an invective form of politics while injecting increasing volatility into both our economic and national security, to flirting with the onset of a constitutional crisis caused by his own actions.”

That was not Rachel Maddow. It was David Jolly, a Republican congressman from Florida who was defeated in 2016.

A new book by two Harvard professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, offers an idea of what this all means. It’s called “How Democracies Die,” and it studies places where it’s been happening, such as Venezuela, Hungary and the Philippines. They argue that when an elected leader turns into a strong man, his typical strategy is to delegitimize a society’s other institutions, to say he is the only answer.

So there’s a meaning when a president says that the media, and the courts and law enforcement, and the other party are all corrupt and don’t have good intentions toward the country. And we have a president who told the Republican convention about the country’s situation, “I alone can fix it,” and who answered a question about his slowness in filling jobs, “I’m the only one that matters.”

One hope that we do have is that Trump seems to spend only about half the day being president, and the rest watching Fox News. Say this for Mussolini, he put in the hours.

But Fox News is involved not only in entertaining and validating the president, but in how he got to be president. People talk about Trump being a reality TV president, and you can see the connection. On reality TV, the loudest and most outrageous contestant gets most of the attention and air time, and in the 2016 Republican primaries, it certainly worked that way.

But long before reality TV, for more than two decades, Fox News, and talk radio, have been feeding Republicans a new version of how political talk should work, a political dialogue built on name-calling, lies, conspiracy theories and thinly disguised racism. So it makes perfect sense that when a presidential campaign came along based on those same elements, it found an eager market.

It’s the role of the media to identify and to call out lies, especially lies by government. But at the time when the media is most needed to do that, there is a problem of credibility and resources. When Donald Trump dismisses stories about his administration as FAKE NEWS, a large part of the population, and maybe most Republicans believe him. According to some polls, about half the country believes that the media just make up stories about Trump.

Whatever happens, Trump’s popularity remains high among Republicans. GOP candidates in primaries compete to be the Trumpiest, and few Republicans in Congress are eager to challenge him. During Watergate, some of Richard Nixon’s earliest, sharpest and most decisive critics were Republicans; it’s hard to imagine that happening now.

During Watergate, we saw lots of attacks on the media. But there was still a general belief what the Washington Post, or the New York Times, of CBS News said was probably true. Now Americans not only have their own opinions, they have their own news sources, providing what Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts.” A conservative getting information from Fox News, and a liberal watching MSNBC, don’t just have different opinions, they live in different worlds, and find it hard to find ways to talk to each other.

And it’s not just TV station. People with different opinions have their own web sites, their own radio, their own Facebook pages, their own Twitter streams. And these are hard to challenge, because fewer people believe the institutions that might challenge them.

This is happening, of course, while the business model of newspapers has been collapsing. Donald Trump dismisses facts he doesn’t like as coming from “The failing New York Times,” and it’s true that unlike some people, the Times doesn’t have a steady stream of Russian money. Newspapers have fewer reporters, fewer editors and fewer pages. And while the Times has 2 million digital subscribers, and the Washington Post is now owned by the man who founded Amazon, many local papers – such as one I can think of – have had it much worse.

There are many fewer people covering the Oregon legislature, fewer people watching local government. There are still a lot of people watching the Trump administration, but when was the last time you saw a story about Metro? They could be shipping half their budget to a bank account in Buenos Aires, and we’d never know.

As I said at the beginning, we’re living in strange and rapidly changing times. Frank Luntz, the Republican communications expert who taught Republicans to say “death tax” instead of “inheritance tax,” and “tax relief” instead of “tax cut,” complained recently, “We are no longer rewarding policy. We are rewarding rhetoric. On a personal level it sickens me.”

It’s a hard time to be a newspapers. It’s even getting harder to be a TV station. But it’s a particular hard time to be a citizen, and especially a well-informed citizen. You not only have to know what you believe, but what to believe. You have to ask questions, and question the answers you get.

But it’s never been more important.

It’s going to take some effort to make sure that a book called “How Democracies Die” has examples no closer than Venezuela.

NOTE: This speech was given to Willamette Democratic Women, 5/10/18.

02 May

Portland Children’s Levy supports kids — and feeds them

The sign above the blackboard says firmly, in the tone you might use to an unruly second-grader, “Think you don’t need math? Think again.” Above the next blackboard is a display of math symbols, the addition sign and the subtraction sign marching across the wall. It’s a portable classroom next to Lent School, in outer Southeast Portland, just the place where grade schoolers are force-marched through the multiplication tables.

Except this is Monday afternoon after school, and the tables aren’t covered with 10-year-olds’ best guesses at 9 times 7, but with boxes of macaroni and cheese, bags of potatoes and boxes of cabbage. Once a week at Lent school – and at dozens of others in Multnomah County – a food pantry blooms, and mothers and grandmothers picking up their kids from school can also pick up something to fuel them for homework.

At each school, at least 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a category that includes a daunting number of local schools.

The pantry at Lent school, and more than a dozen others, is run with food from the Oregon Food Bank; staff, including a young Ukrainian immigrant who speaks more languages than an Internet translator, from the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization; and money from the Portland Children’s Levy. The PCL is enacted every five years by the voters of Portland to support children’s programs that otherwise wouldn’t happen, and a few years ago, the people running it decided that feeding kids was a children’s program.

“It was a really good idea to make access to food convenient,” concludes city commissioner Dan Saltzman, who devised and promoted the levy. “I can’t think why we didn’t do something like this sooner.”

In the May election, Portland will vote again on the children’s levy, which still seems like a really good idea.

Inside the Lent portable space, it seems like a particularly good idea. The waiting room is packed, with children chattering in English and adults trying to quiet them in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese. These days, the eastern stretches of Portland are as diverse as a Benetton commercial and a big part of the city’s future – and a worthwhile place to invest some beans and rice.

Abeer Zidan arrived here nine years ago from Syria, following her husband, who studied at the University of Portland. Three of her four children are Lent students, and they squirm and tug at her as she explains that the pantry is a good way for them to get some healthy food and vegetables. Asked about their tastes, she ducks her head as if to hide a smile in her head scarf and admits, “Sometimes my kids like chips.”

The irresistible pull of the American snack.

Overseeing the operation is Maria Klimenko, hunger relief coordinator for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. Klimenko arrived from Ukraine 4 ½ years ago. In addition to Ukrainian and Russian, she speaks fluent Spanish – her father was Cuban – along with Portuguese and French, useful with some new African arrivals. Talking to clients in the waiting room, she switches among her languages – including the gentle English she uses with a visiting writer – with the ease of an artist dipping into all her colors.

It takes a village to feed a village; besides the food bank and the children’s levy, the pantries are supported by Urban Gleaners, New Seasons and other groceries, and a range of church groups.

A big part of the need is that even with parents working, a family can’t live far enough east to escape Portland’s soaring housing costs. “If people have to choose between a roof over their heads and food,” says Klimenko, “they’ll choose the roof.”

In a rising trend, 33 local schools now have food pantries, 19 of them supported by the Portland Children’s Levy. Demand is not limited. “I get more asks to run school pantries,” reports Ally Meyer, child hunger program developer at the food bank, “than we have time and space and money to do.”

As the children’s levy comes up for renewal at the May primary, voters get another chance to consider its benefits, including making sure that the voters of Portland tomorrow get dinner tonight.

In other words, voters get to think again.

In lots of languages.

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website.

04 Mar

For kids. a home away from homelessness

The word of the week is “Grit.”

It’s proclaimed in the middle of the school hallway, with definition and examples. (Grit is not saying “I can’t do it;” grit is saying “I can’t do it yet.”) Fridays, there’s a school assembly where teachers praise students who have demonstrated the word of the week; winners get an I Can award, a can of soda.

Of course, at Community Transitional School, grit could be the word of every week.

Last November, the Oregon Department of Education reported more than 22,000 homeless students in the state’s public schools – 1,500 in Portland Public Schools, 10 percent of the student population of the Reynolds district. On a remote corner of Northeast Portland, in a building with four classrooms, Community Transitional School sends its four school buses to downtown shelters and out to Gresham, to make a difference for about 100 kids at a time.

CTS gets a little money from Multnomah County and from the feds’ Title IX program, but after 28 years it’s supported by a wide range of donors and foundations, of grants and volunteers. Pacific University sends volunteers to work with learning problems, and for a Vision Van that comes around twice a year for vision problems and glasses. (There’s also a Tooth Taxi for dental issues.)

People from the Nike employee shop come out to lead phys ed – with a requirement of completed homework – and students from Oregon Episcopal School and the Riverdale district run cereal drives, because homeless kids tend to get hungry.

Explains principal Cheryl Bickle, “It’s just a private school where kids don’t pay tuition,” and which accepts just about everyone who shows up.

Of course, there are differences. Most private schools don’t put together family packages for Christmas, or send home food for spring break. And at CTS, the students, whose home situation tends to change frequently, may attend for a couple of years or a couple of months. The school buses may pick up and drop off a student at changing addresses – at shelters, at relatives’ houses, maybe near a tent where the family lives.

Teachers can’t assign term projects; the enrollment is likely to be different by the end of a term. And because, as Bickle says, “Nobody wants to be the new kid,” with nobody to sit with at lunch, lunchtime seating is assigned.

Still, in whatever time CTS has with a student, it works to make an impression. “You want to empower this group of kids,” says Bickle. “They don’t have to be the victims of bad decisions by other people.”

Specifically, “They need a place where people have real expectations for them.” Homework is a tricky issue for homeless kids, due to logistics as well as the contradiction in terms, but Bickle is firm: “Homework? That’s a life skill. You better figure out how to do it.”

Right after giving her middle school class a writing assignment on whether they admire cleverness or kindness – one girl’s hand shot up to ask, what if she admired both? – Bickle emphasized how much eventual success for her students seemed to hang on kindness and social skills. It’s not just a matter of ease with people; it’s that after inevitable mistakes, people with social skills are more likely to be forgiven and given another chance.

The kids pick up the theme.

“This school is friendly,” says a 12-year-old boy, recently arrived from out of town. “The other schools are all full of bullies.”

Explains an 11-year-old girl about CTS, “It is kind. The kids here, they think about others.” She jumps up to point to her drawing in a wall display of student Valentines; in a parade rank of candy-box hearts, hers stands out, carefully rimmed in flower petals.

When a student leaves Community Transitional School, hopefully for more stable housing, the school’s parting message is clear.

“Don’t forget all the things you learned about yourself,” says Bickle. “And if you find yourself homeless again, call us. We’ll come and get you.”

In our society, we lose kids in so many ways: to homelessness, to hunger, to drugs, to guns, to nobody even noticing that the kid is slipping away.

But sometimes a lot of people come together, and a kid is caught.

Bickle remembers one student, who attended twice, in different stretches of homelessness. The second time, she remembers, he came back a little harder, a little tougher, but he came back.

And some years later, he returned to the school again, married, with a job.
“I just came back,” he explained to Bickle, “because I wanted to tell you I turned out all right.”

That grit can be powerful stuff.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/4/18.

04 Feb

Trump immigration offer not exactly a Dream

As their guests for last week’s first State of the Union speech by Donald Trump, the Oregon Democrats in Congress invited Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought here as children whose legal status now ends March 8.

The atmosphere turned out to be less than hospitable.

In fact, the last time guests were treated like this was in “Game of Thrones.”

Trump spent much of the speech warning of the dangers of immigration, referring to undocumented immigrants in terms of MS-13, the Salvadoran drug gang.

After boasting repeatedly of his love for Dreamers – “He had a real chance to reach out,” commented Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. “He said he had a big heart for them”— the president moved instead to what Merkley calls an election strategy of “ginning up the fear factor, and becoming the MS-13 president.”

And now the fate of 800,000 Dreamers – including 11,000 Oregonians – who grew up in the United States and typically know no other country, seems increasingly murky.
The president’s refusal to reach a deal to protect the Dreamers – despite their overwhelming support in public opinion polls, including among Republicans – had recently led to a funding cliff that briefly shut the government down. Last month, Merkley was among the leaders of the 18 Senate Democrats who voted against a continuing resolution reopening the government for another three weeks – which, in a time of complete budget collapse, is how we now fund the functioning of the United States.

Merkley explained that since negotiations never take place until a few days before the funding runs out, he saw no reason to renew funding for more than a few days, and start negotiations immediately. The renewed funding for the government runs out again this Thursday, and Merkley says he’ll again try for a very short renewal – although he admits another shutdown is unlikely.

Part of the deal that ended the shutdown was a promise by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow a Senate vote on a Dreamer protection bill, including chances for amendments from both parties. Merkley notes that McConnell has made promises before – including about the Dreamers – and that his promises are not exactly negotiable currency.

(In fact, it seems that a McConnell promise and $1,000 will get you into a fund-raising dinner.)

“We’ll see if that happens,” says Merkley about the vote. In any event, “I’m skeptical we can get 60 votes.”

Not because there isn’t an immigration deal that could get 60 votes; one actually exists, devised by a bipartisan group of senators, which the president first pledged to support and then rejected. Merkley also cites a warning from House Speaker Paul Ryan to McConnell not to pass a funding bill with Dreamer protection attached.

(Ryan has to worry about hard-line anti-immigration Republican House members who make Trump look like the Statue of Liberty. One of them, Paul Gosar of Arizona, responded to Democrats’ inviting Dreamers to the speech by calling for any undocumented immigrant entering the Capitol to be arrested and deported.)

Tuesday night, Trump stressed the dangers of immigration, linking protection for the Dreamers to $25 billion for a southern border wall, and to ending two other immigration programs: the visa lottery and family reunification, which he calls “chain migration.” Trump charged that “under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives” – a statement that was not only hostile but, like his praise of “beautiful clean coal,” transparently untrue.

Speaking for the Democratic senators, Merkley warns, “I don’t think those two things get through without a fight,” pointing out that family reunification “has been part of our immigration policy forever.” He would support “a significant expansion in border security,” although noting that spending happens in annual votes, not in a 15-year, $25 billion “slush fund.”

Since the speech, Trump has repeated his hostile line on immigration, as both the next government funding vote and the March 8 deadline on Dreamers come closer – and the prospect of a deal gets further away.

“Last night was a turning point for me,” Merkley mused bleakly Wednesday afternoon. “I was more optimistic before.

“It was painful for us thinking of everything,” he recalled about the Oregon Democrats listening to the speech. “It was painful thinking of our guests in the balcony.”

Among a blizzard of discouraging messages Tuesday evening, Oregon Democrats got another one:

When Donald Trump is the attraction, be careful who you invite.

Trying for an uplifting note in the evening, the president declared, “Americans are dreamers, too.”

But maybe Dreamers can’t be Americans.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 2/4/17.

24 Jan

D.C. attack on higher education felt in Oregon

It’s clear, as we mark the one-year mark of the Donald Trump show, that the Official Dislike list includes immigrants, many of the countries they come from, corporate taxes and reporters who ask annoying questions.

But there is also a clear dislike, and multiple moves against, the nation’s higher education institutions, part of what The Atlantic calls “The Republican War on College.”

This regime is deeply suspicious of people who think they know something.

Michael Schill, president of the University of Oregon, calls the situation “alarming,” noting that “We are getting a message from some members of Congress and the president that’s hostile to higher education.”

The effects are reaching toward Oregon colleges and universities, creating what Wim Wiewel, former president of Portland State University and current president of Lewis & Clark College, calls “a bit of a sense of a wholesale assault.”

Efforts undermining higher ed include the new tax bill, the approaching Higher Education Reauthorization act, the administration’s proposals for sharp cuts in research funding and official attitudes making the United States about as inviting to foreign students as mandatory gym. After a long tradition of government considering higher education as an asset – it produces medicines, weapons and taxpayers – higher ed largely serves the current administration as a target.

The new tax bill, among other things, limits the deductibility of interest on student loans, and for the first time taxes the income of the largest college endowments. (The tax doesn’t bring in much, but it sends a message.) The House version would have taken a small nick out of the Reed College budget; the Senate raised the threshold enough to exclude all Oregon colleges – for now.

The Senate also blocked the House’s effort to turn tuition waivers, given to graduate student and college employees, into taxable income, which could have given a number of students the gift of a tax bill larger than their income.

(The tax bill, with its limit on state tax deductibility, also squeezes high income tax states like Oregon, and decades have shown that state squeezes are felt first in the higher ed budget.)

The next blast comes in the impending Higher Education Reauthorization , recently pushed through the House education committee on a party-line vote after the Democrats first saw the bill just before a 14-hour markup session. “In the end,” says Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a senior Democrat on the committee, “it will make it harder for low-income students.”

Elements include charging student loan interest earlier, from the time of borrowing instead of graduation; eliminating programs of student loan forgiveness after years spent in certain professions; and eliminating graduate students from federal work-study programs – as well as dropping the funding from a 3-1 federal match to 50-50.

But the proposed bill does follow Trump administration policy of eliminating the Obama administration’s limitation for-profit colleges, established because the for-profits too often left students with no useful degrees and sizable debt – to be largely covered by the feds. Curbing that outcome is now considered an interference with school choice.

For next year’s budget, the Trump administration is proposing cutting federal research spending in half. (As noted, the administration is suspicious of people who know things, or want to learn them.) This would be a major hit to universities around the country; in Oregon, it could land heavily on Oregon State, where a major oceanography research grant just raised the university’s annual research funding to $441 million. Oregon State president Ed Ray says he’s worried about it “very much,” and that universities might depend more on non-federal research funding, such as corporations and foundations.

Bonamici says that Congress looks more favorably on research, and “Fortunately, it’s the legislative branch that makes appropriations.” But as the events of the last week have shown, the D.C. budget process is now a roller coaster with very weak guard rails.

Currently, Washington undermines higher ed in another way unrelated to budget. Increasingly, American universities have been drawing international students, who pay out-of-state tuition and build global reputations. Now, says Schill, “Students are wondering whether this is a congenial place to go to school,” and the U of O’s international applications are down, part of a national trend.

The roots of the hostility are not hard to see. Stephen Moore, an economist and journalist who advised the Trump campaign, reflected considerable conservative opinion by calling universities “playpens of the left,” and a recent Pew poll found 58 percent of Republicans believing that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country.”

It’s certainly true, as Ed Ray notes, that higher ed has always been criticized, and that its current critics are still generally enrolling their children. But American higher education has been strengthened by a general understanding that the system is an economic asset and a route for social mobility – and dismissing that awareness will lead to major losses.

It’s a problem if our model of higher education is Trump University.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian 1/21/18.

06 Jan

Healthcare community riding together on 101

Measure 101, the subject of the ballots that dropped into Oregon mailboxes last week, stands almost alone among the vast bushels of Oregon tax measures.

For this one, some of the folks who would pay it are its strongest supporters.
It’s like homeowners demanding to pay more property taxes.

Measure 101 puts a small tax on health care providers, and yet just about everybody in the Oregon health care community – doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurance providers, disease advocates, mothers who want their children to be doctors – supports it. In the medical community’s thinking on Measure 101, it’s not easy to find a second opinion.

The money raised by the tax would bring in a much larger amount from the federal government, protecting the health insurance of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians recently added to Medicaid. The strategy has already worked for Oregon and its health care community, and for some other states and their health care communities – which may be why so many providers are in such unusual agreement on a tax, even if they’re paying it.

“It’s very important that the majority of healthcare in Oregon is working behind 101,” agrees Kevin Ewanchyna, a Corvallis family physician and Oregon Medical Association board member. “My colleagues and I all have stories about lives saved because people came in for primary care when they had coverage.”

Over two years, the tax would collect between $210 million and $320 million from the Oregon healthcare community. But as matching funds, it would bring in $630 million to $960 million from the federal government, covering the 350,000 Oregonians added to Medicaid by the Affordable Care Act, and supporting the reforms Oregon has made to its healthcare system in recent years.

Folks in healthcare aren’t always in total agreement; doctors complain about insurance providers, hospitals complain about doctors. There are always conflicts, admits Jessica Adamson, director of government affairs for Oregon at Providence Health and Services, “But on this one we agree. We believe it’s important to stand together to defend this package.”

Oregon – as well as other states – has done this before. In 2009, the legislature adopted a similar strategy to maximize the state’s use of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. That tax has lapsed now, after helping cut the proportion of uninsured Oregon children from 12 percent to 2 percent.

Everybody in Oregon healthcare also agrees that doing that was a good idea.

On the other hand, risking the federal support for insuring 350,000 Oregonians is a problem for everybody. Uninsured people endanger their own health, hurting themselves and the economy. But as we learned over decades, lack of insurance, preventing primary care, causes expensive emergency room appearances and late-stage treatment, costs landing on the entire system.

“When people lack access to affordable care,” points out Janet Bauer of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, “everybody else’s costs go up.”

This would be especially true of defeating Measure 101, which includes a reinsurance plan protecting insurers against extreme individual expenses, otherwise spread over everyone’s premiums – raising them by an estimated $300 a year.

The Voting Pamphlet arguments against Measure 101, mostly from individuals, argue against any taxes, against providing health coverage for undocumented children, against abortion, against state college tuition levels and against Nike (it’s a long story). They also object to the cost and quality of health care in Oregon, although it’s not clear how risking billions in federal money helps that.

But, state Rep. Cedric Hayden insists, “There’s NO RISK 350,000 low-income Oregonians will lose healthcare if you vote NO on 101! Income tax revenue created by Oregon’s $5 BILLION DOLLAR healthcare industry exceeds the revenue we need to fund Medicaid patients.”

The state’s just spending its money wrong, he explains, so all the legislature would have to do in its short session next month is redesign the state budget.

People in Oregon healthcare are less confident. Measure 101 “is the only guarantee we’ll be able to qualify for the Medicaid benefit,” says Adamson of Providence, currently the only statewide individual insurance provider. “Anything else is a gamble.

“There is no Plan B.”

Never a comforting medical opinion.

It took six months – and multiple trips through the number-crunching Legislative Fiscal Office – for the legislature to put together the program and the budget behind Measure 101, and to gather the overwhelming support of Oregon healthcare behind it.

“That’s why,” explains Kevin Ewanchyna, “the physicians of Oregon have to support the expansion of the Medicaid program, and Measure 101. From my perspective, it’s either Measure 101 or it’s not happening.”

To the people who provide health care in Oregon – who treat the patients and keep the facilities working – Measure 101 isn’t just a proposal.

It’s a prescription.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 1/7/18.

21 Dec

Same-sex weddings now baked in the cake

It’s the holiday season, and the air is full of baking. Magazines are thick with Christmas cookie recipes, the hot urban trend is the donut boutique, and Oregon’s booming marijuana tax revenues suggest that the whole state is getting baked.

And the Supreme Court is talking cake.

The court’s unusually layered proceedings earlier this month addressed the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado baker who cited his religious beliefs in refusing to create a cake for a gay wedding – an episode closely resembling Oregon’s own Sweet Cakes by Melissa case. The Oregon proprietors were fined $135,000 by labor commissioner Brad Avakian, and their appeal is now before the Oregon Court of Appeals. When the Supreme Court swings its own rolling pin on the issue, it could set the pastry precedent.

The Oregon argument has been largely about religious freedom, and whether you can be obliged to bake a cake for an event you would refuse to attend. The Supreme Court argument was largely about art.
You might rather have judges talking cake.

Religious freedom did feature in the Masterpiece case. But the Colorado baker argued strongly that the controversy was an issue of freedom of expression, that he was an artist who expressed himself in his cakes, and that the government could not tell him what to say, in print or in buttercream.

Masterpiece Cakeshop’s attorney, Kristen K. Waggoner, said her client was an artist who creates “a temporary sculpture” when he makes a wedding cake. Slicing the argument even thinner, she declared that her client would have no problem with a gay couple coming into his shop, buying a cake off the shelf and using it as a wedding cake; it was only creating a custom wedding cake that cut across his artistic freedom.

And while other legal cases have treated bakers’ concerns as similar to those of florists or photographers who might want to send regrets to a gay wedding, the Colorado claim saw the baker as distinct from the candlestick maker. While the baker has rights of expression, argued Waggoner, “the tailor is not engaged in speech, nor is the chef engaged in speech.”

Justice Elena Kagan gagged on the distinction. “Whoa,” she said. “The baker is engaged in speech, but the chef is not engaged in speech?”

Because if a wedding cake is covered under religious liberty, the next demand will be to free the finger sandwiches.

It was all too much for Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“When have we ever,” she asked, “given protection to a food?”
The artistic expression argument might have particular force in Oregon, where the law takes an expansive view of expression and its protection – the reason Oregon has a planet-leading number of strip joints per capita. On the other hand, nobody’s suggested that a strip joint’s freedom of expression would let it refuse to book a same-sex wedding’s bachelor party.
Or deciding what to serve.

The constitutional cake controversy may raise a fundamental issue, or it might just be a marker of where we are in the same-sex marriage process.

During the debate over the 1964 civil rights act, and in some later debates, legislators agonized over “Mrs. Murphy’s boarding house,” and Mrs. Murphy having to accept boarders she didn’t like into her small, personal space. Fifty years later, we no longer hear much about Mrs. Murphy; maybe she’s retired to an Arizona gated community with a golf course. Now we just assume that discrimination in places of public accommodation is illegal, even to Donald Trump’s Justice Department.

The American public’s attitude toward gay marriage has changed faster than the public image of Bill Cosby. In 2004, George W. Bush ran for re-election in a crusade against gay marriage – it was better than running on the glory of the Iraq war – and a dozen states, including not-quite-as-cool-as-it-would-later-be Oregon, enacted constitutional amendments outlawing the idea. In 2016, with 42 Republican candidates for president, none of them stressed rolling back gay marriage, and several of them even seemed willing to serve as ring bearer.

In a season that’s largely about family gatherings – and, of course, baking—we have nationally reached the understanding that families come in lots of different shapes. Last week in Alabama – Alabama! – voters rejected a Senate candidate who declared that homosexual behavior was “heinous” and should be illegal. There were lots of other reasons Roy Moore lost, but a number of voters seemed to be telling reporters that, you know, someone in their family was gay, and should still be treated like a person.
In 2017, we have finished the argument over gay marriage. That ship has sailed, or you might say, that cake has been baked.

Now we’re arguing over crumbs.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/17/12.