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.

How Big Banks Rake in Millions on the Backs of California's Poorest Families

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 10:44 AM EDT

It's expensive to be poor. A new report out from the California Reinvestment Coalition concludes that the big banks are charging some of California's poorest families hefty ATM fees to access monthly benefits from the state welfare program known as CalWORKs, skimming at least $19 million a year, the group estimates, from this taxpayer-funded program.

Banks with a history of sticking the poor with overdraft fees are now gouging them with ATM fees.

The average CalWORKs family is an adult with two children who gets $510 a month worth of benefits, or about $6,120 a year. That's not enough to live on, not even close, and the benefits are 8 percent lower now than they were in 2011. On top of that, accessing the funds costs them as much as $4 per ATM transaction, fees they really don't have any alternative but to pay. That's because California doesn't ask its vendors to do much by way of accommodating the recipients. A $69 million contract with Xerox to administer an electronic benefit transfer card system has helped make these EBT cards the default way to deliver public assistance, and there's no state requirement that banks waive ATM fees for people who use them.

In a press release, Andrea Luquetta, author of the report, explained:

For families trying to escape poverty, these fees siphon away money that could be used for school supplies, transportation or medicine.  The current system leads too many people to pay fees just to access the very benefits they need to survive. It is a diversion of taxpayer dollars away from their intended use of supporting families. That's why we're calling on the state, banks, county offices, and nonprofit partners to work together to address this pressing issue.

The average EBT user pays about $5 a month in fees, but Luquetta says that figure masks the real story, as some people successfully avoid paying the fees while others pay a lot more. "It is typical for someone to pay the fee at least twice in a month in order to withdraw all of the cash in as few transactions as possible. At a Bank of America ATM that will cost $6. And then, of course, there is the challenge of what to do with that cash—load it onto a prepaid [credit] card? Buy money orders? All of that costs fees as well that we don't capture. I even know a few people who pay the fee at a Bank of America or Wells Fargo ATM and then turn around and deposit the cash into their account at the same bank," she said in an email.

In theory, someone receiving CalWORKs benefits could have the money deposited directly into a checking account for free. In fact, most of the beneficiaries don't have checking accounts, largely because they can't afford them. More than 96 percent of beneficiaries use the EBT cards. Many welfare recipients are leery of bank accounts, having previously suffered high overdraft fees and other fees charged by banks.

Some of the banks benefiting from the EBT fees have helped play a role in stoking those fears of traditional banking. The largest beneficiary by far of EBT-related ATM fees in California is Bank of America, which hosted 12 percent of the transactions in 2012, earning $3.6 million, according to the coalition. Back in 2004, a California jury hit the bank with a verdict that would have potentially exposed it to $1.2 billion in damages in a class action lawsuit filed by Social Security recipients who'd had their federal retirement or disability benefits seized directly from their accounts to pay excessive overdraft fees—a practice that left many low-income seniors and disabled people in dire straits. Plaintiffs showed that, like many banks at the time, BofA processed checks in a way that often made more of them bounce, thus increasing the fees it could automatically deduct. (A BofA spokeswoman says the bank no longer processes checks that way.)

The Obama administration came to BofA's defense in the case, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court; the verdict was overturned on appeal. But publicity around the case went a long way in exposing the sorts of problems low-income people encounter when they do business with big banks. Given this history, it's hard to blame families for not wanting to entrust these institutions with their meager benefit checks. But the banks have figured a way to make them pay anyway.

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The House GOP's Obamacare Alternative Won't Curb Health Care Costs—But It Will Enrich the Insurance Industry

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported in an "exclusive" front-page story that House Republicans are at long last promoting their alternative to Obamacare. According to the Post, the new plan, roundly panned, is really just a compilation of the same old health care proposals that Republicans have been floating for years, including allowing the sale of insurance plans across state lines, high-risk insurance pools, and, notably, restrictions on medical-malpractice lawsuits.

Like so many of the Republicans' health care reform proposals, capping damages in and otherwise restricting malpractice lawsuits isn't likely to have a big impact on health care costs, or on expanding coverage to the uninsured. Just ask the state of Florida, whose Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a law similar to the one House Republicans are pushing.

Florida passed its version of the House GOP plan in 2003, when doctors in the state were loudly proclaiming the existence of a "malpractice crisis" in which the state was plagued with an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits that were driving doctors' insurance premiums sky-high and forcing them to leave the state. But last week, Florida's Republican-dominated Supreme Court poked a giant hole in that hysteria. It declared that not only was that "crisis" a fiction, but that the alleged cure—caps on lawsuit damages, which are also favored by the House GOP—had done nothing but enrich insurance companies at the expense of doctors and patients, in violation of the state constitution.

Infamous George Zimmerman Prosecutor Puts Disproportionate Number of Black Men on Death Row

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 2:35 PM EDT
Florida state attorney Angela Corey

Florida is working hard these days to make itself a case study argument in favor of abolishing the death penalty. In a state that has seen more innocent people exonerated from death row than any other in the country, lawmakers last year passed legislation to try to speed up the pace of executions. Last month, Gov. Rick Scott (R) set a dubious record for presiding over more executions in his first term than any governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Meanwhile, the state continues to ignore US Supreme Court rulings banning the execution of the mentally ill and intellectually disabled. Just last week, the state argued before the Supreme Court that it didn’t want to use accepted scientific principles to comply with the court's ban on executing mentally disabled people because that would spare too many death row residents, a move that would be "inconsistent with Florida’s purposes." And now comes the news the state's most notorious prosecutor has not only sent a disproportionate number of felons to death row, but a disproportionate number of African-Americans, once again raising the troubling issue of racial disparities in the state's capital punishment system.

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