Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent several years hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

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This Tea Party Leader Seems Pretty Confused About the Hobby Lobby Case

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 1:23 PM EDT
Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin

When the tea party movement first emerged, with its laser focus on fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget, it never really distinguished itself with a deep understanding of economic issues or the operations of government. Now that it's joined the culture wars and shifted into divisive social issues it once eschewed, the movement doesn't seem to have any better handle on law or policy than it did when it was warning President Obama to "keep your hands off my Medicare."

Case in point: the Tea Party Patriots effort to insert itself into the religious freedom wars surrounding the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. On Tuesday, the group held a rally at the US Supreme Court to "stand up for the right to choose," during the oral arguments in the biggest case on the docket this year, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby. The case involves a for-profit corporation with 13,000 employees and $3 billion in annual revenue that's arguing the Obamacare requirement that the company's health insurance plan cover most contraception violates its religious freedom. At the core of the case is the dubious contention that a corporation can hold religious beliefs.

Calling the event a "Freedom of Choice" rally, the tea partiers are co-opting the language of the reproductive rights activists who are arrayed on the other side of the case. On the Tea Party Patriots' website, the groups insist that the case "isn't about what Hobby Lobby, Inc. is or isn't willing to provide to their employees. This is about everyone's right to practice their religion without the government stepping in and telling them what to do."

It's obvious from Tea Party Patriots' simplified description of the Hobby Lobby lawsuit and other statements that the group's leaders are pretty clueless about the case (and the law). In a press release today, Martin claimed:

It is quite astonishing that the U.S. government, after forcing the health care law on the American people who overwhelmingly opposed it, has taken the further action of bringing a beloved family business to court to force them to violate their constitutional rights. The owners of Hobby Lobby have said repeatedly that they have no desire to make health care decisions for their employees. Why is the government forcing them to do so? 

Emphasis mine. In fact, Hobby Lobby is in court precisely because its owners want to make health care decisions for employees—by denying insurance coverage for contraception to which it has religious objections. And the government has never forced a "beloved family business" to violate its constitutional rights. Leaving aside the fact that it's not legally possible for a business to violate its own constitutional rights, there's nothing in the Affordable Care Act that requires a company to provide health insurance for its employees, much less a plan that clashes with the religious beliefs of its owners.

As Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has discussed extensively here, while the ACA includes an individual mandate that requires people to purchase insurance, there's nothing in the law that requires their employers to provide it. But if a company does provide a plan, it must cover most forms of birth control, including the emergency contraception Plan B and Ella. If Hobby Lobby wants to avoid having its insurance plan cover these sorts of drugs, it can simply drop its insurance plan, pay a modest tax, and let employees buy their own plans on the insurance exchanges. (To be nice, the company could raise their pay to cover the cost of the insurance.) As government social programs go, the ACA has a pretty light touch.

The tea party's framing of the issues in Hobby Lobby reflect the movement's attempt to square its libertarian roots with its active courtship of the religious right. Not long after hitting the national political stage, fledgling and underfunded groups like Tea Party Patriots actively sought out evangelicals, particularly their deep-pocketed donor base. In turn, the "teavangelicals," as Christian activist Ralph Reed dubbed them, demanded that GOP candidates, and the tea party itself, not ignore their pet issues like abortion and gay marriage in favor of more libertarian budget-related issues, and the culture wars were back in full flower.

Mark Meckler, a Tea Party Patriots co-founder who has since left the group, was initially adamant that the tea party would not engage in fights over social issues like the ones in the Hobby Lobby case. By the tea party's heyday in 2010, he was telling a religious-right conference organized by Reed that tea partiers' motivating force was not the national debt but anger over "this idea of separation of church and state. We're angry about the removal of God from the public square." Tuesday's rally at the Supreme Court is evidence that the social issues the tea party initially vowed to avoid is really all that's keeping what's left of the movement alive.

How Big Banks Rake in Millions on the Backs of California's Poorest Families

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 9:44 AM EDT

It's expensive to be poor. A new report out from the California Reinvestment Coalition concludes that the big banks are charging some of California's poorest families hefty ATM fees to access monthly benefits from the state welfare program known as CalWORKs, skimming at least $19 million a year, the group estimates, from this taxpayer-funded program.

Banks with a history of sticking the poor with overdraft fees are now gouging them with ATM fees.

The average CalWORKs family is an adult with two children who gets $510 a month worth of benefits, or about $6,120 a year. That's not enough to live on, not even close, and the benefits are 8 percent lower now than they were in 2011. On top of that, accessing the funds costs them as much as $4 per ATM transaction, fees they really don't have any alternative but to pay. That's because California doesn't ask its vendors to do much by way of accommodating the recipients. A $69 million contract with Xerox to administer an electronic benefit transfer card system has helped make these EBT cards the default way to deliver public assistance, and there's no state requirement that banks waive ATM fees for people who use them.

In a press release, Andrea Luquetta, author of the report, explained:

For families trying to escape poverty, these fees siphon away money that could be used for school supplies, transportation or medicine.  The current system leads too many people to pay fees just to access the very benefits they need to survive. It is a diversion of taxpayer dollars away from their intended use of supporting families. That's why we're calling on the state, banks, county offices, and nonprofit partners to work together to address this pressing issue.

The average EBT user pays about $5 a month in fees, but Luquetta says that figure masks the real story, as some people successfully avoid paying the fees while others pay a lot more. "It is typical for someone to pay the fee at least twice in a month in order to withdraw all of the cash in as few transactions as possible. At a Bank of America ATM that will cost $6. And then, of course, there is the challenge of what to do with that cash—load it onto a prepaid [credit] card? Buy money orders? All of that costs fees as well that we don't capture. I even know a few people who pay the fee at a Bank of America or Wells Fargo ATM and then turn around and deposit the cash into their account at the same bank," she said in an email.

In theory, someone receiving CalWORKs benefits could have the money deposited directly into a checking account for free. In fact, most of the beneficiaries don't have checking accounts, largely because they can't afford them. More than 96 percent of beneficiaries use the EBT cards. Many welfare recipients are leery of bank accounts, having previously suffered high overdraft fees and other fees charged by banks.

Some of the banks benefiting from the EBT fees have helped play a role in stoking those fears of traditional banking. The largest beneficiary by far of EBT-related ATM fees in California is Bank of America, which hosted 12 percent of the transactions in 2012, earning $3.6 million, according to the coalition. Back in 2004, a California jury hit the bank with a verdict that would have potentially exposed it to $1.2 billion in damages in a class action lawsuit filed by Social Security recipients who'd had their federal retirement or disability benefits seized directly from their accounts to pay excessive overdraft fees—a practice that left many low-income seniors and disabled people in dire straits. Plaintiffs showed that, like many banks at the time, BofA processed checks in a way that often made more of them bounce, thus increasing the fees it could automatically deduct. (A BofA spokeswoman says the bank no longer processes checks that way.)

The Obama administration came to BofA's defense in the case, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court; the verdict was overturned on appeal. But publicity around the case went a long way in exposing the sorts of problems low-income people encounter when they do business with big banks. Given this history, it's hard to blame families for not wanting to entrust these institutions with their meager benefit checks. But the banks have figured a way to make them pay anyway.

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Tue Sep. 9, 2014 6:30 AM EDT | Updated Tue Dec. 16, 2014 10:10 AM EDT