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.

Biden's Dude Problem

| Tue May 24, 2011 9:07 AM EDT

Women's groups have a bone to pick with Vice President Joe Biden. Biden has convened a series of closed-door meetings with various advisers and members of Congress to tackle budget negotiations with Congress. Despite the fact that women will be disproportionately affected by many of the decisions thanks to their over-representation in big-ticket programs for the elderly such as Medicare and Social Security, Biden has not included a single woman in his meetings. The "gang of men," as the National Council of Women's Organizations have dubbed it, includes: Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), U.S. Senators John Kyl (R-Ariz.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). The gang is negotiating with Biden, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, budget director Jack Lew, and economic adviser Gene Sperling.

The oversight is pretty striking. Biden typically had a good record on women's issues while he was in the Senate, having drafted the landmark Violence Against Women Act in 1994, among other things. But he seems to have forgotten that there are girls in Congress and the administration who know something about the federal budget and economics. (See: Karen Kornbluh, for instance.) The women's groups are calling on Biden to include more female voices in the negotiations so that they are fairly represented.

And for good reason: Social Security, one of the main potential drivers of the budget deficit over the long haul, is a critical safety net for elderly women, who are also heavy users of the other budget-buster, Medicare. For women over 65, Social Security accounts for more than three-fifths of their income, according to a new study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. For older men, by comparison, Social Security accounts for only half of their income. Social Security keeps half of all women over 75 above the poverty line. Given those figures, any cuts to the program are likely to have a significant impact on women. Unfortunately, the only people in the room talking about it right now are a bunch of dudes.  

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As Need Grows, States Slash Welfare Benefits

| Fri May 20, 2011 9:58 AM EDT

The recession and record unemployment levels have sent thousands of families seeking public assistance to put food on the table. But as the need for help has grown, by as much as 20 percent in some states in recent years, many cash-strapped states are slashing benefits for the poor, who weren't getting too much help to begin with. A new study by the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities finds that states are making huge cuts to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families(TANF)  program, or what used to known as welfare, leaving the vast majority of poor families with no place to turn.

According to CBPP, in at least seven states, TANF serves just 10 extremely poor families out of every 100. And those who receive benefits are about to get far less cash. The state of South Carolina, which saw its TANF caseloads grow by 30 percent between December 2007 and December 2009, recently cut benefit levels by 20 percent, so that a family of three now receives only $216 a month, down from $270 a month.

The reasons for the drastic cuts are fairly simple. Welfare used to be an entitlement program that responded quickly to dips in the economy. The budget went up automatically with the need, and decreased when the economy got better and people were able to go back to work. But in 1996, thanks to Republicans in Congress, including then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Democratic president Bill Clinton, welfare became a block grant. That meant the federal government gave the states a fixed amount of money every year, and removed many of the strings attached so that the states could spend the welfare money more freely. The idea was sold as one that would turn the states into laboratories of innovation, where they would move lazy, poor single mothers from welfare dependency to work. Critics, including Clinton administration officials who quit when Clinton signed the bill, warned that the block grant would lead to great suffering and hardship among poor families that would disproportionately affect children during a recession.

As it turned out, lots of women left the welfare rolls during the late 1990s, when unemployment fell to record low levels, and states diverted a lot of the extra TANF money to other programs that often had little to do with helping poor families. Republicans declared it a huge victory. But now that the economy has hit the skids, the real impact of the "reform" is starting to become clear. The federal TANF block grant hasn't been increased in 16 years despite the economic downturn. Thanks to inflation, its real value has fallen 30 percent, a budget cut that would have been politically impossible had Republicans proposed it outright.

The block grant is sneaky that way. Which is one reason that Republicans, urged on by conservative groups like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, are promoting a block grant conversion for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. Turning Medicaid into a block grant would mean that Republicans wouldn't even have to propose budget cuts because they'd happen automatically thanks to inflation, as the value of the block grant decreased over time, regardless of demand. But given how welfare "reform" is turning out for the country's neediest, Democrats might want to think twice before embracing this sort of "innovation.

Legal Advocates Slam Tea Party Constitution Classes

| Fri May 13, 2011 10:57 AM EDT

Earlier this week, we reported on a new project sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots to pressure public schools into teaching the Constitution using its favored, if dubious, curriculum. Well, the news isn't going over well in some quarters. Liberal lawyers were very unhappy to hear that the tea partiers wanted the public schools to teach the Constitution based on the writings of the late author of the 5,000 Year Leap, W. Cleon Skousen. Skousen's views on the Constitution are considered well outside the mainstream, and they include ideas drawn from white supremacist dogma and other shady sources. One of his textbooks on constitutional history contained blatantly racist material suggesting that slaves were actually a happy bunch of folks.

Friday morning, Doug Kendall, the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal-leaning think tank and public interest law firm, blasted out a press release urging educators to keep the tea partiers out of their schools. He said:

I defy the Tea Party Patriots to find one credible historian willing to support their view of the Constitution’s history. Before the Tea Party gets to go into school and teach our children about the Constitution, they need to find a tenured professor on the history faculty on one of any of the 50 highest-rated universities in the United States who will vouch for the accuracy of their teachings. To qualify to teach America’s children about the Constitution you need to do more than dress up like James Madison.

The Tea Party Patriots are peddling constitutional gobbledygook masquerading as history. Yet whether it is Tea Party organizations misrepresenting American history, or Tea Party politicians like Rep. Michele Bachmann not knowing what state the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in, the Tea Party has utterly disqualified itself from serious discussion of our Constitution’s text and history. America's school boards must flatly reject the Tea Party Patriots' attempts to muscle their bad history into our children’s classrooms.

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