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Half of All Public School Kids in Poverty? Be Careful.

| Sat Jan. 17, 2015 12:55 PM EST

What's up with the copy desk at the Washington Post? Here's a new story about our public schools:

Majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty

By Lyndsey Layton

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers.

The headline is wrong, even though Layton gets the facts pretty much right: 51 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, which are available only to low-income families. That's an important story. But participation in the federal lunch program is, as she notes, only a rough proxy for poverty: you qualify if you have a family income less than 185 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four this comes to about $44,000, which certainly qualifies as working class or lower middle class, but not poverty stricken.

But it's more complicated than that! The 51 percent number is attention grabbing because it's a majority, but perhaps the more important number is that 44 percent qualify for free lunches. For a family of four, that's $31,000, just barely over the poverty line. If you got rid of the word "majority," it would be safe to use the phrase "near poverty." And frankly, I wouldn't be bothered much if you just called it poverty, even if that's not quite the official federal government definition.

But wait! It's even more complicated than that—and this part is important. On the one hand, lots of poor kids, especially in the upper grades, don't participate in school lunch programs even though they qualify. They just don't want to eat in the cafeteria. So there's always been a bit of undercounting of those eligible. On the other hand, a new program called the Community Eligibility Provision, enacted a couple of years ago, allows certain school districts to offer free meals to everyone without any proof of income. Currently, more than 2,000 school districts enrolling 6 million students are eligible, and the number is growing quickly. For example, every single child in the Milwaukee Public School system is eligible. Overall, then, although the official numbers have long undercounted some kids, CEP means they now increasingly overcount others. Put this together, and participation in the school lunch program becomes an even rougher proxy for poverty than it used to be—and any recent "explosion" in the student lunch numbers needs to be taken with a serious grain of salt. This is especially true since overall child poverty hasn't really changed much over the past three decades, and if you use measures that include safety net programs it's actually gone down modestly since the end of the Reagan era.

This is, perhaps, a bit too much nitpicking. Unfortunately, we're forced to use school lunch data as a proxy for poverty among school kids because we don't really have anything better. What's more, child poverty increased during the Great Recession and God knows that I'm all in favor of calling attention to it. In a country of our wealth it's a national scandal by any measure, and a massive problem that infects practically every aspect of education policy.

Still, it's a subject that can't easily be reduced to a single school lunch number. Both headlines and copy should do their best to treat the subject accurately.

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Tom's Kitchen: Pasta Fagioli With Winter Vegetables and Bacon

| Sat Jan. 17, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Pasta makes a great showcase for a season's bounty—and not just in spring, despite the famed dish spaghetti primavera. I recently found myself in possession of some excellent butternut squash and collard greens from Austin's Boggy Creek Farm, as well as gorgeous bacon from the throwback butcher shop Salt and Time. So, sweet (squash), pungent (collards), smoky/umami (bacon): elements of a great dish. To round it out, I decided to add white beans to the mix, using a method I recently picked up from the Los Angeles Times' Russ Parsons: Without any soaking, you cook the beans in a covered pot in an oven heated to 350 degrees F. Within two hours, I had perfectly tender, flavorful beans to bolster my pasta. (You can also just open a can, of course.) Grate a little Parmesan cheese and open a bottle of sturdy red wine, and you've got a dinner satisfying enough to overwhelm the winter blues.

Vegetarians can forgo the bacon and cook the collard greens in olive oil along with a rehydrated and chopped-up chipotle pepper, maintaining the smoke while adding a blast of heat.

Pasta Fagioli With Winter Vegetables and Bacon

1 large or two small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces (a tricky task, but easily accomplished with a sharp knife and proper technique, laid out here)
Some extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 or 5 slices of bacon, preferably from pastured hogs, cut into half-inch chunks
3-4 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
1 large bunch of collard greens, stemmed and chopped
1 pound of pasta (I used Bionaturae whole wheat spaghetti)
1 1/12 cups cooked white beans (Russ Parsons' no-soak method here; you can also substitute 1 can of beans)
Plenty of fresh-ground black pepper
1 bunch parsley, chopped, and crushed chili flakes, to garnish
A chunk of Parmesan or other hard cheese, for grating.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Dump the squash cubes onto a baking sheet and give them a few glugs of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, and a lashing of black pepper. Using your hands, toss them to coat them evenly with oil, and then arrange the cubes in a single layer. Bake them, turning once or twice, until they are tender and beginning to brown, about 40 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, put a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook it, stirring often, until it is brown and crisp. Remove the bacon from the skillet with a slotted soon, setting it aside. With the bacon fat still in the skillet, add the garlic. Cook it for a few seconds, stirring often, and add the chopped collards. Using a spatula or tongs, toss them well, coating them with fat and garlic. Add a pinch of salt and a dash of water. Turn heat low and cover the skillet, and let the collards cook, stirring occasionally, until they are tender.

When the squash and collards are both well underway, cook the pasta using the low-water method. Reserve about a cup of the cooking liquid before draining the pasta.

In a large bowl, combine the squash, collard greens, beans, and the cup of pasta cooking liquid. Dump the hot pasta over, and gently combine everything using a tongs or two big spoons. Add the parsley, a pinch of chili flakes, and several grinds of pepper, and taste for salt, correcting if necessary. Pass the Parmesan and a grater at the table.

Friday Cat Blogging - 16 January 2015

| Fri Jan. 16, 2015 2:56 PM EST

Looky here: it's Hilbert plus the entire Drum clan. On the far left, that's me and my sister circa 1963 (my brother is there too, but Hilbert is hiding him.) Aren't we cute? In the middle are my parents, and on the right are Marian's folks. And I'm sure no one needs any help recognizing the youthful, bright-eyed newlyweds in the center.

In other cat news, my sister draws our attention to the fact that cats can save lives too. Here's the report from Russia: "An abandoned newborn baby was saved from freezing to death by the unlikeliest of hero — a stray cat. The tabby named Marsha climbed into the box the infant had been dumped in and kept the child warm for several hours as the mercury plunged below zero." Hooray for cats!

This Year's Flu Vaccine Was 23 Percent Effective

| Fri Jan. 16, 2015 2:41 PM EST

The LA Times passes along the news that this year's flu vaccine gives you a 23 percent lower chance of contracting the flu:

That 23% figure is a measure known as “vaccine effectiveness,” and it’s certainly on the low end of the spectrum. In the decade since experts began calculating a “VE” for flu vaccines, it has ranged from a low of 10% to a high of 60%.

....But the vaccine didn’t help everyone equally. Kids benefited the most — the VE for those between the ages of 6 months and 17 years was 26%. Among adults, the VE was 12% for people ages 18 to 49 and 14% for people 50 and older. The figures for adults were too small to be statistically significant.

Just my luck. This year was the first time I ever got a flu shot, and all I got out of it was a 14 percent lower chance of getting the flu. And my arm was sore for days afterward! Hmmph.

No, Congress Never Intended to Limit Obamacare Subsidies to State Exchanges

| Fri Jan. 16, 2015 1:37 PM EST

The Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in King v. Burwell, in which conservatives will argue that the text of Obamacare limits federal subsidies only to people who buy insurance from state-run exchanges, not from the federal exchange. Roughly speaking, there are two prongs of the conservative argument:

  1. The law contains text that explicitly limits subsidies to state-run exchanges. Democrats may not have intended this, but they screwed up in the rush to get the bill passed. That's too bad for them, but the law is the law.
  2. Democrats actually did intend to limit subsidies to state-run exchanges. This was meant as an incentive for states to run their own exchanges rather than punting the job to the feds.

The argument over #1 revolves around textual interpretation of the statute as a whole, as well as previous Supreme Court precedent that provides federal agencies with broad latitude in how they implement regulations. The argument over #2 relies on trying to find evidence that limiting subsidies really was a topic of discussion at some point during the debate over the bill. That's been tough: virtually no one who covered the debate (including me) remembers so much as a hint of anything like this popping up. The subsidies were always meant to be universal.

But the recollections of journalists aren't really very germane to a Supreme Court case. The real-time analyses of the Congressional Budget Office, however, might be. This is an agency of Congress, after all, that responds to questions and requests from all members, both Democrats and Republicans. So did CBO ever model any of its cost or budget projections based on the idea that subsidies might not be available in certain states? Today Sarah Kliff points us to Theda Skocpol, who took a look at every single CBO analysis of Obamacare done in 2009 and early 2010. Here's what she found:

CBO mostly dealt with overall budgetary issues of spending, costs, and deficits — or looked at the specific impact of health reform proposals on Medicare beneficiaries, health care providers, and citizens at various income levels. The record shows that no one from either party asked CBO to analyze or project subsidies available to people in some states but not others. In a June 2009 analysis of a draft proposal from Democrats in the Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee, CBO treated subsidies as phased in. But even that proposal, which did not survive in further deliberations, stipulated that subsidies would be available in all states from 2014 — and CBO calculated costs accordingly.

After the Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010, members of Congress, especially Republican critics, continued to raise issues. In its responses, CBO continued to model exchange subsidies as available nationwide. No one in either party objected or asked for alternative estimations assuming partial subsidies at any point in the 111th Congress.

It's unclear whether this is something the Supreme Court will find germane, but it's certainly closer to being germane than the recollections of a bunch of reporters.

It's also possible, of course, that the court will focus solely on argument #1 and never even get to questions about the intent of Congress. Nonetheless, this is an interesting review of the CBO record. The conservative case that Democrats actively intended subsidies to be limited to state exchanges has always been remarkably flimsy. Skocpol's review exposes it as all but nonexistent.

Will 2014 Finally Be the Year That Puts the Climate Denialists' 1998 Chestnut to Rest?

| Fri Jan. 16, 2015 12:09 PM EST

With 2014 now in the books, it's a good time to refresh our memories about the great conservative global warming hoax. Here's a look at the usual conservative presentation showing that the planet hasn't warmed even a teensy little bit over the past decade. Their go-to chart, which goes from 1998 through 2012, looks like this:

No warming! But how can that be? Well, if you cherry pick your start and end dates, you can show just about anything. Here's the same chart extended by a mere two years on either side. It goes from 1996 through 2014:

Warming! How about that? It's amazing how you can lie with numbers if you put your mind to to it. And here's the full chart since 1900:

This is apropos because NASA announced today that we set a record last year: "The year 2014 ranks as Earth's warmest since 1880, according to two separate analyses by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists."

The year 1998 was an outlier, an unusually warm year. If you choose this as your starting point, the next decade will look pretty uneventful. You can do the same thing with lots of other decade-long periods. For example, 1969-85 looks pretty flat, and so does 1981-94. This is typical of noisy data. Planetary warming isn't a smooth upward curve every year. It spikes up and down, and that allows people to play games with the data over short periods. Add to that the fact that warming really does appear to pause a bit now and again, and it's easy for charlatans to fool the rubes with misleading charts.

But in the end, physics and chemistry will do their thing regardless. Earth is warming up, as any honest look at the data makes clear. And 2014 is now yet another record-setting year. We'll see if that's enough to embarrass the Fox News set into giving up on the old 1998 chestnut.

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"Daily Show" Explains the Absurdity in Alabama's New Abortion Law That Appoints Lawyers for Fetuses

| Fri Jan. 16, 2015 9:32 AM EST

Back in September, Mother Jones reporter Molly Redden investigated a new law in Alabama forcing pregnant teenagers seeking an abortion to first receive parental consent. If she is unable to get permission, the teenager is then put on trial, giving judges the right to appoint attorneys to defend the unborn fetus.

This all sounds insane. Last night, "The Daily Show" sent correspondent Jessica Williams to the state to investigate. Here's how some of that absurdity played out:

"You get a call from a fetus seeking legal representation, then what happens?" Williams asks unborn fetus attorney Julian McPhillips. 

"I cannot get a call from a fetus for anything much less legal representation," he answers.

When questioned about how he meets in confidentiality with his unborn client, McPhillips shoots back, "I cannot communicate with them directly, you know better than to ask the question."

"Well I don't know! You have a crazy ass job, sir. I don't know what's in the realm of possibility and what's in the realm of not possible." 

For more on how judges humiliate teens seeking abortions, read our in-depth report here. 

Watch below:

 

Pope Francis: Climate Change Is Real and Humans Are Causing It

| Thu Jan. 15, 2015 5:55 PM EST

Pope Francis made headlines Thursday when he told reporters that he believes climate change is largely caused by humans. "I don't know if it [human activity] is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face," said Francis, according to the Associated Press. "We have in a sense taken over nature."

But how does the pope know that humans are responsible for most of the unprecedented warming that has occurred in recent years? How can he be sure it wasn't caused by solar cycles? Or volcanoes? Or "global wobbling"? Here's a hint: The AP mentions that some of Francis' top aides have recently noted "that there is clear-cut scientific evidence that climate change is driven by human activity."

That's right. Unlike much of the US Congress, the pope seems seems to be relying on science to inform his opinions about climate change. And indeed, his remarks Thursday echoed the scientific consensus on the issue. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, recently declared it "extremely likely"—that is, at least 95 percent certain—that "human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."

Still, all the science in the world won't help much if we don't actually do something to reign in the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the problem. And the pope is pushing for action. According to the AP, Francis criticized world leaders for failing to accomplish enough at a recent climate conference in Lima, Peru, and he called for them to be "more courageous" when they reconvene in Paris later this year.

We Have Some Bad News For You About That Hilarious Dog-Walker Craigslist Ad Everyone Is Talking About

| Thu Jan. 15, 2015 4:24 PM EST

Update, Sunday, January 18, 2015: We have more bad news. Apparently this dude is a plagiarist. Yahoo Tech editor Jason Gilbert wrote this Craigslist post years ago and the guy in Seattle stole it. 

On Sunday, a "dog-walker" in Seattle posted a Craigslist ad offering their services to "rich-ass dog owners." The lengthy—and hilarious!—ad took the internet by storm. One site went so far as to call it the "Great American Craigslist Ad.

HEY RICH-ASS DOG OWNERS:

Are you at the office 23 hours a day in a coke-fueled effort to squeeze every last penny out of your 20's and 30's?

Are you going out of town with your post-divorce trophy-girlfriend to visit your slave ship collection in the Barbados?

Do you work for a corporation that received Tarp money?

I AM YOUR DOG-WALKER

I am the most radical, bitching, mind blowing dog- walking experience in all of Seattle. All dogs are STOKED when I'm around, regardless of breed or sex. Your dog is gonna be on me like Charlie Sheen on a porn star mad of amphetamines; when I'm ascending toward penthouse suite in your private elevator, bitch's nipples are gonna be ROCK HARD.

Do I have experience walking dogs?

I'M A HUMAN BEING, OF COURSE I HAVE EXPERIENCE WALKING DOGS. THIS ISN'T LINEAR ALGEBRA, FOLKS; ITS DOG-WALKING

The heroic rant continues. Other people found it quite amusing as well and deemed it the latest "great American Craigslist ad." 

But when reached for comment, our "dog-walker" revealed the hard-hitting truth. 

Ummm... I posted this as a joke. I have surprisingly gotten people that want me to walk their dogs. Ive got more marriage proposals and offers for sex more than anything. I prefer to remain anonymous but i will tell you that I am married with a daughter and contrary to my post(that is a joke) I make a comfortable living and I'm pretty much your average joe family man. The reason I posted it is to show what happens when you go to college and stack up student loans and dont have a plan afterwards. you'll turn out having to walk dogs with a shitty outlook on society.

The moral of this story is that nothing on the internet is ever true.

Sorry, guys.

Here is a screenshot of the ad for when it gets taken down:

Chart of the Day: Thanks to Obamacare, Medical Debt Is Down

| Thu Jan. 15, 2015 4:22 PM EST

A new survey from the Commonwealth Fund brings us good news and bad news. The good news is that, thanks to Obamacare, the number of people with serious medical debt issues has dropped from 41 percent to 35 percent. Hooray!

And the bad news? This barely gets us back to where we were a decade ago. We still have a long way to go.