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 the last year 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.

Tax Day Means Big Bucks for Predatory Lenders

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 11:05 AM EDT

Poor people just can't get a break. Even when the government actually offers them a benefit, the private sector manages to find a way to take a big cut. That's what's happened since Bill Clinton pushed through a major expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a measure that boosts the income of working poor families with a refundable tax credit. It's now one of the biggest anti-poverty programs in the nation. At the same time, however, the EITC has spawned a lucrative cottage industry of scummy tax preparers who prey on unsophisticated workers with promises of "immediate" refunds that are, in fact, very expensive predatory loans that in 2006 drained nearly a billion dollars out of the refunds owed to people who really needed the money.

Tax preparers like H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt offer what are known as Refund Anticipation Loans, in which they give clients their "refunds" on the spot. The "refunds" are actually loans based on the future refund, which is then directed to the tax preparer or lender. The interest rates on many RALs are exorbitant—anywhere from 36 to 1,200 percent once all the fees are factored in. What's really evil about these loans is that many people eligible for the EITC don't realize that they can get all of their tax refunds, for free, from the IRS within a week or two of filing their returns, a fact that the tax preparers are certainly not sharing.

Earlier this year, consumer groups sent out mystery shoppers to many of the commercial tax preparation firms offering RALs and found that most of them didn't tell consumers that the money they were receiving was a loan, or that they'd get more money if they waited a week for the IRS. The groups also reviewed IRS records and discovered that RALs were such easy money that tax preparers can now be found in such dicey locales as payday lending shops, liquor stores, beauty salons, pawn shops and used car dealerships—one reason why RALs have been connected in many states to major criminal tax fraud scandals. Nearly two-thirds of RAL borrowers are EITC recipients, even though such folks only make of 17 percent of all tax payers. That's one reason why the IRS is currently considering whether to limit RALs. Unfortunately, any move will come too late for people filing this year.

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House Republicans Try Wishing Away Housing Crisis

| Tue Apr. 8, 2008 9:41 AM EDT

Last month, before members of Congress headed back home for the spring recess, House Republican leaders distributed a "recess kit" to help members for their "district work session." The kit provided members with talking points and reference materials to help them stay on message while dealing with constituents back home. The kit covered such topics as "the urgency of entitlement reform," the "Bipartisan Border Security Discharge Petition," the Columbia Free Trade Agreement, and suggested a variety of strategies for bashing Democrats on taxes. Conspicuously absent, though, was the one issue on everyone's mind right now: the foreclosure crisis.

Even as analysts were predicting that 2 million people were likely to lose their homes, and as the BBC burned up the Internet with its broadcast on "Bushvilles"--the tent cities sprouting up in California, full of former homeowners, Republican House members didn't think the issue warranted much attention. A spokesperson from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office told The Hill that the glaring omission was "appalling." Constituents back home, apparently, set most members straight on the issue.

Bush's HUD Secretary Finally Gets Some Press

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 10:43 PM EDT

When Alphonso Jackson announced today that he would be stepping down as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he joined a growing list of disgraced or, at the very least, incompetent former secretaries of that agency produced by Republican presidents. Jackson is currently facing investigations by the HUD inspector general, a federal grand jury, and the Justice Department's public integrity section for a host of alleged corrupt practices. The only thing surprising about Jackson's departure, or the scandals that precipitated it, is that it didn't come sooner.

Republicans have never liked HUD very much. GOP presidents tend to turn it into a political backwater, a neglected place where they repay campaign favors rather than orchestrate major policy initiatives. As a result, the agency has been the source of a considerable number of GOP scandals. Jackson's announcement brought back memories of Samuel Pierce, Ronald Reagan's longtime HUD secretary who was plagued by allegations that many of his close associates had engaged in cronyism, mismanagement, and in some cases, outright theft at the agency, all of which occurred as Reagan dismantled the nation's low-income housing infrastructure. At least six major Reagan administration officials ended up convicted of crimes stemming from HUD corruption. Pierce was never convicted of anything, but the rot in his agency was so deep that even the former EPA secretary James Watt got convicted in the mess, as did Pierce's former assistant Deborah Gore Dean (who recently remade herself into a Georgetown antique shop owner).

Modern GOP presidents have relegated the HUD secretary to an affirmative-action posting, a spot where Republicans like to demonstrate their alleged commitment to diversity in the cabinet, while giving those people authority for all the programs Republicans don't care about, or would like, ideally, to get rid of. Indeed, back in the early years of the Reagan administration, Pierce, the only black member of Reagan's cabinet, once famously came to the White House for a reception at which Reagan greeted him by saying, "How are you Mr. Mayor? I'm glad to meet you. How are things in your city?"

Stuff Some Money In Your Mattress, Just In Case

| Wed Mar. 26, 2008 10:03 AM EDT

abandoned-bank.jpgMore troubling news for the economy: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is staffing up in preparation for a rash of projected bank failures:

Gerard Cassidy, managing director of bank equity research at RBC Capital Markets, projects 150 bank failures over the next three years, with the highest concentration coming from states such as California and Florida where an overheated real estate market is in a fast freeze.

According to the AP, that's a whole lot more than the usual six banks that go belly up in a good year, but perhaps not very surprising given how few Americans these days actually have any savings in their passbook accounts. Federal deposit insurance will hopefully prevent panicked depositors from making a run on the banks, but the image of banks closing up shop doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence in the future of the economy, regardless of how optimistic the president is about it.

Photo by Flickr user teseap used under a Creative Commons license.

It's Not Just Wall Street That's Happy To See Spitzer Go

| Mon Mar. 24, 2008 1:58 PM EDT

Last fall, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer appointed a task force to address the state's high rates of malpractice by hospitals and doctors. The task force was also charged with making recommendations for lowering doctors' med mal premiums, which soared 14 percent last year. The insurance industry and doctors' groups seized the opportunity to press for new restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits, which they claim would reduce the premiums. As other states have learned, though, such limits usually only result in windfall profits for insurance companies while leaving injured patients with no recourse should their doctor, say, amputate the wrong leg.

Consumer groups in New York had long suspected Spitzer of siding with the doctors on this issue, largely because his brother is a downstate neurosurgeon. Their suspicions were confirmed when Spitzer stacked his medical liability task force with more than 20 representatives from the hospital, medical and insurance industries, while consumer protection and patient safety groups got just three spots. The consumer reps have largely been shut out of the task force deliberations, and despite repeated demands, they've been denied access to the insurance industry data, which supposedly justified the limits on lawsuits. Recently, the consumer members learned from local newspapers that the task force had drafted a major reform proposal that would be released soon. None of them had ever seen it.

Now that Spitzer has resigned, the groups are hoping his replacement, Governor David Patterson, will open up the process. In a letter today, representatives from NYPIRG, the Center for Justice and Democracy, the Center for Medical Consumers and others wrote Patterson, "We refuse to be mere window dressing, to be used as stage props to create the illusion of inclusion, while proposals that affect the life and safety of every health care consumer in our state are drafted in secret. We hope you will redirect the state's efforts towards reducing the deaths and injuries caused by a tiny fraction of the state's physicians, rather than enabling error, negligence, and malpractice to be subsidized by taxpayers."

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