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.

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Big Corporations Won't Be Sweating the IRS This Year

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Lots of average Americans who filed their tax returns this week will soon face the unpleasant prospect of having those returns audited. But corporations with at least $10 million in assets (or far more) have much less to fear from the tax man. Behemoths such as Microsoft and General Electric have taken a beating in the press lately because of how little in US taxes they pay, thanks to extremely complicated and aggressive use of offshore tax havens. The criticism doesn't seem to have affected how corporations are treated by the IRS, though. According to a new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, in the current fiscal year, the IRS plans to devote 18 percent less effort to auditing companies with more than $10 million in assets than it did just two years ago. The agency has seen a $1 billion budget cut in the past year, and all of this comes before the effect of the sequester, which will slash $600 million from its budget this year. The IRS also projects that the amount of time available for specialized agents to conduct these audits will drop 14 percent as well, thanks to staffing cuts. 

The IRS measures employee budgeted time in staff years, whose decline is shown in this chart:

Large Business and International Division Direct Examination Staff Years Transactional Records Access Clearing House

While the amount of staff time devoted to auditing the average Joe has gone up 62 percent since 2011, it's fallen nearly 30 percent for corporations. The IRS's workforce today is 23 percent smaller than it was in 1992, even though the number of returns filed has gone up 27 percent over the same period, according to TRAC. The acting IRS commissioner testified before Congress on April 9 that the agency is down 10,000 employees compared to what it had during the 2010 tax season. And the agency is being asked to do even more work. It's responsible for implementing key sections of the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare) and it is grappling with a significant number of cases of identity theft that are projected to cost the country billions in fraudulent refunds if not addressed promptly. 

Yet thanks to the forced, across-the-board budget cuts imposed by Congress, the IRS is going to have to close up shop for seven days in 2013, when work will essentially grind to a halt.  All of these cuts seem shortsighted, given that the IRS collects 93 percent of all government revenue. Failing to collect what all taxpayers owe leaves the federal budget short about $400 billion per year. More robust funding of the IRS that would allow it to go after more of corporate America's bigger players might help reduce the need for some of the sequester cuts.

CHART: Welfare Benefits Far Smaller Than Scorn Heaped On Them

| Tue Apr. 9, 2013 11:25 AM EDT
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. 

Occupy the Department Of Education Returns to DC

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 6:20 AM EDT
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.”

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