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.

Full Bio | Get my RSS |

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.

CHART: Welfare Benefits Far Smaller Than Scorn Heaped On Them

| Tue Apr. 9, 2013 8:25 AM PDT
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

 

Welfare recipients have always been easy targets. President Ronald Reagan reviled them as "welfare queens" who supposedly drove Cadillacs and lived large on the government dole (a story that was entirely apocryphal). Heaping abuse on the recipients of the federal welfare program, since renamed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), continues to be a popular staple of conservative rhetoric. A Missouri legislator recently introduced legislation, dubbed the "don't get sick" bill, to punish poor families by taking away their TANF benefits if a child misses more than three weeks of school. Last week, a Tennessee legislative committee passed a bill that would slash TANF benefits to families whose children get bad grades. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott is still trying to force that state's TANF beneficiaries to undergo drug tests that two federal courts have deemed unconstitutional. Scott isn't alone. To date, 16 states have tried to force TANF recipients to undergo drug testing, despite little evidence of widespread drug abuse among the single moms in the program. 

The focus on TANF recipients is vastly out of proportion with the size of the program, which has been steadily shrinking since it was "reformed" in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and turned over to the states to administer. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the cash benefits doled out under TANF are now so meager that they barely make a dent in the fortunes of the recipients. In Tennessee, where legislators were so eager to use TANF as a "stick" to get poor kids to do well in school, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $185—barely enough to lift a poor family above 10 percent of the federal poverty line. Missouri's benefits clock in at $292 a month, literally the same amount offered in 1996. Thanks to inflation, the real value of those benefits has fallen more than 30 percent, leaving recipients at barely 18 percent of the poverty line. 

Nationally, the picture is equally grim. In 37 states, according to CBPP, the purchasing power of TANF benefits is now at least 20 percent less than it was in 1996, when welfare reform kicked in. This is a big deal. At one time, welfare benefits at least might cover the rent for a poor family. Now, there's not a single state in the country where monthly TANF benefits for a mom with two kids will cover the fair market rent of a two-bedroom apartment. Welfare moms are clearly not living large in the program, despite what state legislators seem to think. If they want their threats to cut TANF benefits over bad grades or missed school days to carry any weight, they're probably going to have to raise benefits first. 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Occupy the Department Of Education Returns to DC

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 3:20 AM PDT
Protesters from Occupy DOE

Most of the Occupy movement has petered out a year and a half after it exploded in New York’s Zuccotti Park. But one small segment of that movement is rallying in DC this week to focus attention on the evils of “corporate education reform.”

Liberal education luminaries including Diane Ravitch, a former assistant education secretary, and Central Park East schools guru Deborah Meier, will be in Washington as part of a four-day “Occupy the Department of Education” event organized by United Optout, a group that came together last year in the flurry of other Occupy Wall Street events. They’ll be part of non-stop speechmaking from teachers, educators, students, and parents, decrying such things as high-stakes testing and the move towards privatizing public education.

The focus on the Department of Education is intentional. Liberal school advocates are deeply unhappy with President Barack Obama’s education reform agenda, which Peggy Robertson, one organizer of this event, calls “No Child Left Behind on steroids.” Robertson, a veteran teacher from Colorado, says that Obama’s education agenda has “opened the door” to the privatization of public education. His Race to the Top initiative is one of the protest’s primary targets.

Robertson says that this initiative, which has created a competition among states for a large pot of new education funding, requires states to accept certain conditions to receive the new money. These conditions include implementing the Common Core standards, a set of new, national guidelines outlining what students should be expected to learn. (The Occupy activists oppose the standards, which they believe deprive teachers of flexibility and creativity in the classroom by dictating what material they need to cover.) Race to the Top grant recipients are also required to allow more charter schools, create a longitudinal database full of student information to track performance, and tie high-stakes testing to teacher evaluations.

All of these things, Robertson contends, create a windfall for big companies seeking a piece of the enormous public education budget and smother creativity in the classroom. (The Occupiers aren’t the only ones obsessed with the Common Core standards. Glenn Beck has been on a tear against them, too, calling them a form of “leftist ideology” that is “dumbing down schools across the country.”)

The Occupiers descending upon the Education Department this week are trying to draw attention to all of this, along with the rash of public school closings going on around the country, most notably in Chicago and Washington. Robertson recognizes that it’s a tough task. “Most of mainstream media ignores everything we say,” she admits. Last year they had only about 100 people at their rally. This year, she’s hoping for at least a thousand, which isn’t much for a DC protest. But Robertson thinks it’s important to try to present an alternative to the sweeping corporate reform effort. “What’s scary," she remarks, "is how fast it’s happening.”

Free Wifi at CPAC Comes With a Cost: Your Email

| Fri Mar. 15, 2013 2:41 PM PDT

People attending the storied Conservative Political Action Conference this year were treated to free wireless internet by one of the event's sponsors, the Tea Party News Network, which picked up the $75,000 tab at the Gaylord Hotel in Maryland. "We're delighted that we could provide free internet for all CPAC 2013 attendees," Scottie Nell Hughes, the news director of the Tea Party News Network, said in a press release. "We wanted to ensure that at the largest annual gathering of conservatives the thousands of bloggers and grassroots conservative activists have the ability to share their thoughts and message with the world."

But as the saying goes, there is no free lunch, and CPAC attendees might be sorry they took advantage of TPNN's offer.

People at the conference have been required to submit their names and email addresses to access the free wireless. Thanks to its sponsorship deal, all of that contact information is going back to the Tea Party News Network, a group that other grassroots tea party organizations have criticized as nothing but a data-mining operation.

The Tea Party News Network is a project of TheTeaParty.net, which is itself a spin-off of a nonprofit group called Stop This Insanity!. I wrote about the group last month when it was raising money for and sponsoring the "Day of Resistance" gun rallies around the country. The outfit was founded by Todd Cefaratti, who runs a "lead generation" business in Mesa, Ariz. Lead generation, for the uninitiated, is the business of finding potential contacts ripe for a sales pitch of some sort. In Cefaratti's case, his business harvests leads for the reverse mortgage industry, which has been flagged by consumer advocates as rife with many of the same predatory lending issues as the subprime mortgage industry that helped crash the financial system in 2007. 

Tea party activists have complained that after logging in to or making donations on TheTeaParty.net or related sites, they found themselves besieged with spam from precious metal dealers who'd been renting the group's email list through Newsmax. The group has repeatedly come under fire for raising lots of money from tea party groups but failing to spend much of it on politics, and has run afoul of the FEC. During the presidential campaign, it raised $1.2 million but spent only $52,000 on candidates. Much of its money gets spent on advertising, including many TV ads that run with a variety of different tea party names on gun and hunting shows. The Tea Party News Network sent out fundraising emails asking for donations to cover the $75,000 CPAC wireless bill.

Neither the Tea Party News Network nor TheTeaParty.net have responded to requests for information about what they intend to do with the emails they collect from CPAC.

Tue Dec. 3, 2013 4:55 AM PST
Tue Sep. 17, 2013 10:32 AM PDT
Tue Aug. 27, 2013 8:12 AM PDT
Wed Jul. 31, 2013 1:01 PM PDT
Tue Jul. 23, 2013 9:36 AM PDT
Fri Jul. 19, 2013 9:54 AM PDT
Tue Jun. 18, 2013 3:30 AM PDT
Mon Jun. 10, 2013 3:30 PM PDT
Tue Apr. 30, 2013 9:29 AM PDT