2013...mewhat-popular - %2

Unemployment Benefits Are Ending for 1.3 Million Americans. What's That All About?

| Tue Dec. 17, 2013 6:00 AM EST

On December 28, 1.3 million people will lose their unemployment insurance. That's because Congress failed to add an extension of those benefits into the budget deal that will likely pass the Senate this week. Here is some background:

Who is losing unemployment benefits? The long-term unemployed. After state unemployment benefits run out—usually after 26 weeks—federal emergency unemployment benefits kick in for up to another 47 weeks. Since Congress didn't renew the program, 1.3 million Americans will be kicked off benefits, which average $1,166 per month. By the end of 2014, another 3.6 million will lose their benefits.

Why are they called emergency benefits? In 2008, under President George W. Bush, Congress authorized emergency unemployment compensation to help the jobless cope with the recession, giving workers a total of 59 weeks of unemployment compensation. A year later, President Barack Obama signed a law giving the unemployed 14 more weeks of jobless benefits. At the height of the recession, Americans could get up to 99 weeks of unemployment pay. That number has since dipped to a maximum of 73 weeks. This is the first time since 2008 that Congress hasn't extended the program.

Under another federal program initiated by President Richard Nixon, Americans can still get an extra 13 weeks of benefits if the unemployment rate in their state is high enough. (This threshold varies by state).

The recovery is picking up pace. Is it time to end the program? Many Republicans think so. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said last week that he thinks extending the benefits fosters unemployment. "I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they're paid for. If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers," Paul told Fox News. "When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks [sic], you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy."

The long-term unemployment rate—the percentage of those without a job for 27 weeks or longer—remains at record levels, though, in an economy with three job applicants for every job opening. The overall jobless rate has dropped to its lowest in five years, but the long-term unemployment rate is at 37 percent of the total unemployed.

In past recessions, extended unemployment benefits ended when the long-term unemployed represented about 1.3 percent of the workforce. Today, the long-term jobless represent more than 2 percent of the labor force.

What will happen to Americans who lose their benefits? Even though the average monthly unemployment payment isn't nearly enough to support a family of four, the benefits do help people scrape by. When extended unemployment insurance expires, many Americans will fall deeper into poverty. In 2012, jobless benefits helped keep 1.7 million people—including 446,000 children—out of poverty, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Expiring benefits may also result in fewer Americans looking for jobs. Jobless insurance allows people to continue an active job search because it helps them afford presentable clothing and transportation to interviews. And Americans may be less motivated to look for work if they lose their benefits. Matt Yglesias at Slate explains:

[S]ome fairly substantial fraction of the long-term unemployed will just stop looking for a job and drop out of the labor force. If you're long-term unemployed, then almost by definition looking for work has not been very successful at getting you work. What it has gotten you is a UI [unemployment insurance] check. Take away the check, there's no point in bothering.

So why wasn't unemployment insurance included in the budget deal? Republicans say there's no urgent need to extend the $26 billion federal emergency unemployment insurance program because the economy is getting healthier. Democrats, who counter that the long-term unemployed are still struggling, wanted a budget deal more than they wanted the benefits extension.

Could the expiring benefits stall the recovery? Unemployment benefits act as a short-term economic stimulus, because unemployed people spend their benefits checks immediately. If the benefits were to continue, the economy would gain 200,000 jobs, and the GDP would grow by 0.2 percent in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Is there any way out of this mess? When Congress reconvenes in early January, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will push a retroactive extension of the benefits. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is urging Democrats to withhold support for the farm bill unless it addresses unemployment insurance.

"The people that are unemployed for a long period of time are Democrats and they are Republicans," Reid said last week. "This is an issue that Republicans, I think, need more than we need it. This is something I think will be extremely difficult for them to turn away from."

But because the spending on unemployment benefits will not be accompanied by a spending reduction, many Republicans are likely to vote against it.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

North Carolina Home Schools to Get Public School Money

| Tue Dec. 17, 2013 6:00 AM EST
The Paramount Christian Academy in Thomasville, North Carolina.

In July, the increasingly right-wing legislature in North Carolina passed a bill to divert $10 million from the public school budget to create vouchers that would give low-income students up to $4,200 a year to pay for private school tuition. Such vouchers are a popular conservative proposal for "reforming" failing public schools.

North Carolina's vouchers, which will become available in 2014, allow public money to go to unregulated private schools that are not required to meet any educational or teacher preparation standards. In addition, thanks to the way the law was written, the money will be available to "home schools"—literally schools set up in someone's house. Homeschooling traditionally has been done by parents. But the state recently changed its home schooling law to allow people who aren't parents or legal guardians educate kids in a group setting. The only requirement for such schools is that the teacher have a high school diploma, that the school keep immunization and attendance records on its students, and that it give kids a national standardized test every year.

NC Policy Watch, a project of the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center, went out and found some interesting "home schools" that may be eligible for taxpayer funding next year. The Paramount Christian Academy has one teacher who teaches her granddaughter, a neighbor's kid, and one special-needs student. It uses textbooks from Bob Jones University and A Beka Book, whose offerings we've chronicled here at Mother Jones.

As Deanna Pan explained last year, such instructional materials teach Bible-based "facts"—such as the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. The materials also suggest that the Ku Klux Klan "tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross" and that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, for instance. Gay people are singled out for special scorn in one Bob Jones teachers' guide, which says that they "have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists." And math haters—these books are for you. The company writes on its website:

Unlike the 'modern math' theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute…A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory.

These sorts of materials are now allowed in Louisiana's voucher program as well, but North Carolina seems unique in diverting taxpayer dollars both to schools that teach wacky Christian curricula and to basically anyone who claims to be a "home school." The state only has a single employee dedicated to overseeing its existing 700 private schools, which get visited on average once every three years, according to NC Policy Watch, making the state's ability to regulate home schools highly questionable. That's not the sort of data point that supports the idea that vouchers will help improve school performance of low-income kids, especially when you consider the experience of other states.

In the District of Columbia, the Washington Post found that vouchers were going to unaccredited schools run by the Nation of Islam and one organized around "Suggestopedia," a learning philosophy developed by a Bulgarian psychotherapist that emphasizes stretching and meditation. Not surprisingly, a US Department of Education study found no evidence that vouchers improved students' test scores. In Milwaukee, a city that pioneered the voucher program, voucher students perform far worse than regular public school students in both math and reading, and the voucher schools have been a hotbed of criminal activity. One school founder used his voucher money to buy himself some nicer rides—two new Mercedes Benz cars—while inappropriately cashing thousands of dollars worth of checks written out to families that didn't actually attend the school. Florida voucher schools have been plagued with similar problems of fraud.

But North Carolina seems en route to set a new low for voucher programs by allowing even more dubious "home schools" to receive tax payer funding. That prospect seems to trouble even some of the voucher law's ardent supporters. Rep. John Hardiser (R) told NC Policy Watch, "I think it’s great if these [private] schools are governed the right way. But I don’t think anyone should be able to start a home school, call it a private school and be able to receive Opportunity Scholarships…most of us want these schools to be held accountable."

For President Obama, 2013 Can't End Soon Enough

| Tue Dec. 17, 2013 1:01 AM EST

From the latest Washington Post poll:

President Obama is ending his fifth year in office matching the worst public approval ratings of his presidency, with record numbers of Americans saying they disapprove of his job performance....His position is all the more striking when compared with his standing a year ago, as he was preparing for his second inauguration after a solid reelection victory. That high note proved fleeting as the president faced a series of setbacks, culminating in the botched rollout of his Affordable Care Act two months ago.

It's been a rough year, all right. It started with the fiscal cliff showdown and then barreled straight into Scandalmania (Benghazi+IRS+AP subpoenas); Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks; the Syria U-turn; the government shutdown; and finally the Obamacare website debacle. That's enough to tank anyone's approval ratings.

On the bright side, even now half of all Americans still blame George Bush for the lousy economy. Plus there's this: in my wife's family, tradition says that even-numbered years are good ones. So maybe things will turn up in 2014.

Southern California is the Fast Food Capital of the World

| Tue Dec. 17, 2013 12:31 AM EST

I realize that nobody cares about this, but for some reason I got curious about how many fast food chains were founded in Southern California. McDonald's, obviously, but how many others? Then my OCD took over, and I ended up with an Excel spreadsheet of the top 50 fast food chains in America along with the states they were founded in. And since I wasted a bunch of time on this, I'm going to share it with you.

California, it turns out, accounts for 10 out of the 50—all of them in Southern California.1 We really are the fast food capital of the world. Texas and Georgia come in second with four each. However, the top city turns out to be Denver, home of Chipotle, Quiznos, and Qdoba. Who knew? The full list is below.

1Assuming Wikipedia is accurate, that is.

Quote of the Day: Free Health Care Kills.... Um.... Republicans?

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 8:43 PM EST

From Rick Santorum, explaining the dangers of relying on the government for health care:

Free health care is just that, free health care, until you get sick. Then, if you get sick and you don’t get health care, you die and you don’t vote. It’s actually a pretty clever system. Take care of the people who can vote and people who can’t vote, get rid of them as quickly as possible by not giving them care so they can’t vote against you. That’s how it works.

WTF? I recognize that sometimes extemporaneous witticisms go astray, and God knows that Santorum is probably more vulnerable to that than most. But even for him this is inscrutable. I wonder if he knows that every American over the age of 65 has been receiving government health care for the past half century?

Anyway, there's video at the link if you think that Santorum's body language and tone of voice might help you decipher what was going through his eccentric little mind when he said this.

Guess Who Gets the Most Brazen Federal Inflation Adjustment in the Country?

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 6:04 PM EST

I learned something new today. Apparently the federal government has a cap on the amount it's willing to reimburse contractors for the salaries of their employees. If someone makes $50,000 per year, no problem. You can charge the feds for their entire salary if they're working on government business. But if your company's CEO makes $3 million per year, you can't charge it all back to the feds even if 100 percent of the CEO's time is spent on government contracts. The limit, set in 1998, was $340,000.

This cap was allowed to rise with inflation, so you'd figure that by 2011 it would be around $467,000. But no. It was $763,000. Why? Because ordinary inflation adjustments are for chumps, that's why. For purposes of charging CEO overhead to the federal government, the cap was set at "the median amount of the compensation provided for the five most highly compensated employees of all publicly owned U.S. corporations with annual sales in excess of $50 million for the most recent fiscal year."

Isn't that fabulous? When it comes to the minimum wage, we don't index for inflation at all. But for CEOs earning top-one-percent pay, we not only index for inflation, we index to the rise in CEO salaries. And since CEOs have been relentlessly voting themselves ever more astronomical compensation over the past few decades, we know that number is going to rise a whole lot faster than piddly old CPI. Ka-ching.

This comes via Lydia DePillis, who'd like to talk about raising the compensation floor, not just cutting the CEO cap back down to size. Good luck with that.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

One of the Films on This Year's Black List is an Alternate History of Stanley Kubrick Faking the Moon Landing

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 5:48 PM EST

On Monday, this year's Black List—the annual list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood as voted on by over 250 studio executives—was announced via Twitter. This list features 72 titles, six fewer than last year's. Previous Black Lists have included what would become three of the last five Best Picture Academy Award winners: Argo, The King's Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire. Being on the list means your script has roughly up to a 120 times greater chance of getting made into a feature film by a studio than if it were an average unproduced script.

One of the screenplays inducted onto this year's Black List (check out the complete list here) is by self-described "newbie" Stephany Folsom, and is intriguingly titled, 1969: A Space Odyssey or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon (an obvious reference to both the title of Stanley Kubrick's classic black-comedy satire from 1964, and to the director's 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968).

Folsom's 108-page script (a drama) focuses on "Barbara," a lone wolf working in the publicity department at NASA's office in Washington, DC, in 1969. The story is an alternate history of how, as the Cold War rages, Barbara reaches out to and convinces acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick to work with NASA to fake the moon landing and one-up the Soviets.

"Hijinks ensue," Folsom says.

Pushing Poor People to the Suburbs Is Bad for the Environment

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 4:47 PM EST

This story first appeared on the Grist website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In recent years, an overhyped counterrevolution has emerged in America. Millennials from the suburbs and their empty-nester parents have been flocking to certain desirable urban neighborhoods. This has led to a lot of chin-pulling about "demographic inversion,"wherein the cities become richer and whiter and the suburbs more non-white and poor. Skeptics note that suburbs are in the aggregate still richer and whiter than central cities and most middle-class families still settle in suburbia.

This sociological debate misses the important environmental question: What will we have achieved if we simply change the demographic complexion of who lives in walkable urban areas and who doesn't? The answer is nothing. For the urbanist movement to be worthy of its name, the end result has to be that a higher percentage of Americans are actually living in central cities, and that the residents of both cities and suburbs represent the full spectrum of American life.

The evidence suggests that a combination of bad public policies is instead causing poor residents to be priced out of the most popular cities by well-heeled newcomers. Consider Annie Lowrey's report on low-income renters in Tuesday's New York Times. They are being squeezed by an economy where all the gains accrue to the top and new housing is built at the high end. Gentrification also brings wealthier renters into poor urban neighborhoods, bidding up the price of existing housing. Writes Lowrey:

The number of renters with very low incomes—less than 30 percent of the local median income, or about $19,000 nationally—surged by 3 million to 11.8 million between 2001 and 2011, according to a report released Monday by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. But the number of affordable rentals available to those households held steady at about 7 million. And by 2011, about 2.6 million of those rentals were occupied by higher-income households.…

Many of the worst shortages are in major cities with healthy local economies, like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Washington.

Coincidentally, the Times is also running a moving, deeply reported five-part series this week on the life of Dasani, a homeless girl living in a shelter in Brooklyn. Her family lost their housing subsidy in 2010, when the New York state program was canceled for lack of funds. Dasani, her parents, and her seven siblings now crowd into one room in a squalid, vermin-infested building next to the Walt Whitman Houses, a vast public housing project in the swiftly gentrifying Fort Greene neighborhood.

From a housing perspective, three things stand out about Dasani's family:

  • They would rather live in the projects than in a shelter. Public housing projects are supposedly a discredited form of big-government liberalism, and the federal government no longer appropriates much money at all for their construction. But in New York City, there are 167,353 families on the waiting list for public housing. (New York also has 123,533 families on the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers.)
  • Their homelessness is the direct result of being ejected from Advantage, a government rental assistance program. "By August 2010, bedbugs had infested the family's house, just as their rent subsidy once again expired," writes the Times' Andrea Elliot. "The city's shelters were filling with former Advantage recipients—families who had been homeless before taking the rent subsidy, only to become homeless again."
  • Their dream is to move to the Poconos because they could never afford an apartment in New York. The Poconos region in Pennsylvania has long been a rural area best known in New York City as a relatively cheap vacation spot. Now it is filling up with working-class New Yorkers priced out of the five boroughs. In other words, it's the exurbs.

Living in the Poconos, where driving is a necessity and a commute to New York takes 90 minutes, is not environmentally efficient. If the wealthy in-migration to New York City forces an equal out-migration, there has been no environmental gain.

To provide affordable apartments in thriving inner cities and their inner-ring suburbs, we need to adopt both the conservative free-market and liberal big-government approaches to expanding housing supply. Zoning restrictions on density must be lifted, so that developers can increase supply to meet demand. But we must also realize that the market isn't providing housing at the price points low-income families need. As Roger K. Lewis notes in The Washington Post, "there is not a single state in the United States where a person working full time and earning minimum wage can afford to rent, at fair-market value, a two-bedroom apartment or home."

Slate's Matthew Yglesias makes the point about zoning in reference to Lowrey's article. Lowrey illustrates her story with a 54-year-old nanny facing skyrocketing rents in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood of Washington, D.C., that was predominantly low-income just a decade ago and is now heavily gentrified. Yglesias writes:

[T]here are two questions unanswered… With demand surging, why doesn't construction surge enough to keep vacancy rates roughly stable. The other: If builders are always aiming at that high end, why are they building in Columbia Heights rather than in the traditionally fancier and more expensive neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park.

The answers are "zoning" and "zoning."…

[Y]ou have a twofold limitation on supply. On the one hand, the total number of new units is capped so people only want to build luxury. On the other hand, new construction in the fancy neighborhoods is absolutely prohibited.

For example, you might walk up Connecticut Avenue just west of Rock Creek Park in D.C.'s tony Cleveland Park neighborhood and think it is fully built up because there are no empty lots. But why are all the buildings merely six or 10 stories tall? Why not 40, when the prices indicate that the demand is there? This is why D.C. must eliminate its building height restriction. But it's also a matter of local zoning ordinances. The side streets in Cleveland Park are dominated by low-density single-family homes. If the market could support replacing them with apartment buildings, why shouldn't developers be allowed to do that? D.C.'s density is only about one-third that of New York's, and its population is only about three-quarters as high as its peak 50 years ago. So clearly there is room for more development, as there is in other expensive cities such as San Francisco and Boston.

At the same time, it makes no sense to assume the market will provide the poor with housing any more than it will provide them with health insurance. It's true that massive, isolated housing projects have often bred social ills. But as the demand to live in New York's projects demonstrates, it is better than forcing people to live in homeless shelters or more than an hour's drive from the city where their jobs and social networks are located. The projects in New York are so destigmatized that developers are going to build market-rate housing right in their footprint. And housing projects no longer all look like vertical prisons. Innovative design can make subsidized housing green, human-scaled, attractive, and integrated into the streetscape.

Since even some conservatives agree with liberals that Section 8 vouchers, which allow low-income renters to find apartments on the market, are both the most efficient means of providing affordable housing and the best approach to encourage economic integration, we should appropriate more money for them.

Too often, after years of neglect, depopulation, crime, and disinvestment, cities have viewed recruiting richer residents as the essence of successful renewal. But a revival of urban America as a whole means that more people, from all walks of life, should be able to live safely, affordably, and comfortably in our cities.

Judge Rules NSA Surveillance Unconstitutional

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 4:32 PM EST

A federal judge ruled today that the NSA's mass collection of telephone records is unconstitutional. Via Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden released this statement:

“I acted on my belief that the N.S.A.'s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts,” Mr. Snowden said. “Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.”

Well, I hope so. But keep in mind that Snowden didn't expose this program to the light of day. We've known about it in fuzzy terms since late 2005, and in very specific terms since 2006, when Leslie Cauley reported it in USA Today. The agency's goal, she wrote then, was to create a database of "every call ever made" within the nation's borders. In the intervening seven years, this revelation has basically produced nothing except a collective yawn.

I'm delighted that Snowden helped this get more attention, and delighted that a judge wants it to stop.  But district court judges make lots of rulings that never go anywhere, and this is most likely one of them. Unfortunately, recent history suggests that neither the American public nor Congress—and apparently not the president either—is inclined to seriously rein in the NSA's phone record surveillance.

New French Book Will Become Important When It's In English

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 3:50 PM EST

Tyler Cowen says today that "The forthcoming Thomas Piketty book will be very important."

That "will be" is sort of interesting. You see, the name of the book is Le capital au xxie siècle, and it was published three months ago. But no one is talking about it. Presumably, it will become very important—and very talked about—only next March, when Capital in the 21st Century hits the shelves.

I don't have any grand point to make. It's just interesting that fluent French is now so rarely spoken among American academics that an important French book can't even get the time of day until its English translation comes out. It makes sense that widespread conversation would have to wait, since you can't very well have that until lots of people have read the book, but you'd think there would be at least a few reviews out there along with a bit of discussion. But if there has been, I've missed it.