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.

Mormon Makeover: Missionaries Scrapping the Suits, Door-Knocking

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 12:22 PM EST

Mormon missionaries are universally recognizable worldwide. They're the guys in the starched white shirts, dark ties, and name tags often seen riding bikes through neighborhoods from DC to Monrovia, knocking on doors and trying to convert people just sitting down to dinner. The uniform is so iconic it was easily mocked in the Broadway show Book of Mormon. But the church recently announced a shocking new development: Some of its missionaries are ditching the suits, and with them, the door-knocking, in recognition that having total strangers bug people at home unannounced is perhaps not the best way to win new followers.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the missionaries are going to try some other tactics—like email spam. The church announced over the summer that it would allow missionaries to better utilize social media and the internet to find potential converts. In June, one of the Latter Day Saints' top leaders, 90-year-old church apostle L. Tom Perry, said, "The world has changed. The nature of missionary work must change if the Lord will accomplish his work."

More interesting, even before that announcement, Mormon missions in California's Bay Area had already given up "tracting," or knocking on doors and trying to convert people, in favor of sending young people out to try to do more practical good in the world. They have been requiring missionaries, who generally serve a two-year stint, to perform "two hours of nonproselytizing community service every day, five days a week—up from the normal four or so hours a week," reports the Tribune, noting that the missionaries have, as a result, partnered with community organizations to help poor kids, clean up trash from homeless camps, read to immigrants, clear invasive plants, and volunteer to keep score at local baseball games. There are some limits to their service: no power tools, no ladders with more than four steps, and they have to keep the name tags. But according to the Tribune, the missionaries have suddenly become very popular among organizations desperately in need of volunteers between 3 and 5 p.m. The effort has been so successful that it's expanding to other states.

The change is fairly striking for a church with a long history of being a somewhat closed society best known for its onetime practice of polygamy. In 2008, Gary Lawrence, a Mormon pollster, published a book full of data showing the extent to which Americans disliked and feared Mormons, whose favorability ratings were on par with Muslims, who ranked dead last on the list of American religions. But it's been clear that the LDS church has been making a concerted effort to improve its public image, particularly in the run-up to the 2012 election when Mitt Romney was the GOP presidential nominee. The church has been trying, fitfully, to be more tolerant of lesbians and gays, particularly the Mormon ones. And the move to allow missionaries to ditch dark ties in favor of trash-picker reflector vests and jeans seems an inspired move that could win favor with evangelical and other Christian groups that have long made traditional community service work central to their faith but who also don't consider Mormons to be true Christians.

As with the church's evolution on gays, the movement of Mormon missionaries to embed with the poor unwashed masses may have some unexpected consequences. Mormons are among the nation's most reliable Republicans. Sending young, impressionable youth out into the trenches to work side by side with the 47 percent might not shake their faith in the church, but it might leave them questioning their party.

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Florida's Unemployment Website Disaster: Worse Than Healthcare.gov?

| Tue Jan. 14, 2014 12:42 PM EST
Looking for Work

Republicans have spent the past few months reveling in the dysfunction of Healthcare.gov, the federal online health insurance exchange. And they've bashed the Obama administration for incompetence over the smallest of technological glitches that accompanied the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. But Republicans aren't exactly immune from the plague of technology problems when they're in charge of things. Take the case of Florida, where Republican state legislators, with the support of a Republican governor, decided in 2011 that everyone seeking unemployment benefits would have to apply online.

The state spent $63 million trying to create a website that would allow the unemployed to access benefits, awarding a contract to Deloitte, which, like the Healthcare.gov contractor, had a better record of lobbying for contracts than actually performing them. (Massachusetts and California have both launched investigations into similar performance problems in their states.) The site's October roll-out was disastrous—in many ways, a bigger debacle  than the Obamacare rollout, because the people trying to apply for benefits were in desperate need of the $275 a week in benefits to pay the rent and keep the heat on. Unemployed people jammed state offices and have flooded Republican Gov. Rick Scott's office with thousands of angry complaints. Legal aid lawyers have seen a rash of clients facing evictions and car repossessions. Last week, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)*called for a federal investigation into the website problems, which still aren't fixed.

Florida's unemployment system was already stingy, offering fewer weeks of benefits than federal law allows. The state already had the nation's lowest percentage of unemployed workers applying for benefits, thanks in part to various obstacles to applying, like a requirement for applicants to take a math test—obstacles that the US Department of Labor found in April constituted major civil rights violations. But that dismal record got even worse in November, when the percentage of unemployed people applying for benefits dropped to 13.4 percent, from 15.5. (Nationally, that figure is 41 percent.)

Scott, formerly a tea party darling up for reelection this year and a big supporter of the restrictions on unemployment benefits, responded to the website crisis publicly this week by saying, "Oh gosh, we work on it every day. And try to improve it every day." Meanwhile, the National Employment Law Center estimates that jobless workers have been denied $20 million worth of unemployment benefits since the website rollout.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Nelson is running for governor of Florida. He is not currently a candidate for that office.

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