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Adam Andrzejewski- June 30, 2016

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Government Accountability Office, ProCon.org

OpenTheBooks.com estimates that the number of border patrol, customs, and immigration officers with arrest and firearm power has tripled from 20,000 in 1993 to 60,000 in 2014. During roughly the same period, the number of undocumented entrants to the United States also tripled. So is border security a question of resources — or political will? 

Adam Andrzejewski is CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, and author of the oversight report, The Militarization of America.

The Driverless Future Has Arrived

Ryan Hagemann- June 29, 2016

If you thought self-driving vehicles were still on the distant horizon, think again.

Last week, Local Motors, in partnership with IBM, announced Olli, a self-driving transportation system that will soon be operational in Washington, D.C. The announcement comes on the heels of a similar initiative revealed by Lyft and General Motors, which recently declared a joint venture to bring new autonomous taxi services to an as-of-yet unnamed city sometime in 2017. A mere three years ago such technology thought to be decades away. Some even predicted that we wouldn’t see autonomous vehicles in our lifetime.

The pessimists got it wrong. 

Seemingly every week, attention-grabbing headlines announce new developments in vehicle automation. From Tesla and Volkswagen to Google and Uber, companies in Silicon Valley and Detroit are investing more heavily in this technology Everyone wants to be the first to market with their vision of what the autonomous future will look like. And more and more it’s looking like we’ll be living in an Uber-style, shared autonomous transportation system.

Undoubtedly, shared autonomous vehicles (SAV) like Olli will be the initial entrants in the transportation market. That should come as no surprise. Many of the near-term benefits will initially accrue to urban residents reliant on taxi services. Whereas human-operated taxi rides in New York City average about $7.80 per trip, an SAV-style system — think Uber but without the driver — could reduce the total per-trip cost to around $1. Those are massive savings that could have a profound impact on how we think about and use urban transportation.

First, however, regulators need to get the rules of the road right.

There’s hope that the balkanized regulatory regime surrounding driverless cars could start adapting as early as this summer. Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it would be releasing “deployment guidance and state model policy on autonomous driving technology” this July. In an all-too-rare nod to intellectual humility, NHTSA has recognized that “its existing legal authority is likely insufficient to support mass deployment of autonomous vehicles.” Initiatives like these will be increasingly important if the United States is to catch up to countries like New Zealand and the United Kingdom, where regulatory impediments to testing autonomous vehicles are minimal.

Over the past two years, there’s been significant progress in addressing many of the concerns related to autonomous vehicles. But barriers still remain. Cybersecurity, privacy, and liability are leading concerns among regulators, to say nothing of the public’s persistent worries about the safety of these vehicles. Surmounting such obstacles will be no small task, but, eventually, the value of driverless vehicles will become evident to all. 

As Mercatus Senior Fellow Adam Thierer and I noted in a 2015 article, many of the potential problems with this technology will be settled in due course. Although NHTSA and government agencies have roles to play, much of the onus remains on private actors. Resolving these issues lies, ultimately, with the people “developing and testing the operational systems,” rather than “in endless bureaucratic proceedings and labyrinthine layers of regulatory red tape,” we wrote. “The tort system will simultaneously evolve to help remedy harms that develop. Lawmakers should not interfere with that evolutionary process.”

Nor should lawmakers interfere with data collection practices — such as those currently being conducted by Tesla — that allow auto manufacturers and software developers to gain greater insight into how best to optimize self-driving algorithms. Government can be a valuable partner in promoting best practices and standardizing regulations, but it can also be a roadblock to this all-too-important technological development. The costs associated with self-driving cars will continue to diminish as the technology matures, customers become more intimately acquainted with these vehicles, and big data helps better inform operational roll-out.

Just as both pecuniary and social costs will dwindle, the benefits of adoption will continue to swell. Annually, tens of thousands of lives will be saved, and injuries associated with automobile accidents will plummet. We will see hundreds of billions of dollars in fuel savings, billions of travel time hours reoriented to non-motor vehicle operating tasks, and massive reductions in the total number of vehicles on the roadways. The total comprehensive savings in congestion, fuel, and health care expenditure could easily amount to over half a trillion dollars annually, possibly more.

Driverless cars hold the potential to disrupt massively our current way of life — and for the better. The question is not whether we’ll see these changes in our lifetime but when. I’d bet on sooner, not later. 

Ryan Hagemann is the technology and civil liberties policy analyst at the Niskanen Center.

You Should Be Protected If You Lose Your Job

Rachel West- June 28, 2016

Two in three Americans will experience at least one year of unemployment for themselves or their household head during their working years. As any of the tens of millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the Great Recession will tell you, unemployment can be excruciating for families — devastating finances, reducing subsequent earnings, and inflicting severe psychological and emotional damage on workers and their children. Unemployment also has enormous costs for our entire economy, depressing GDP growth and eroding the skills of our workforce.

Unemployment insurance (UI) was created eight decades ago to mitigate the risks and hardships of job loss. UI is earned insurance: firms contribute to the system on behalf of their workers through a modest payroll tax. If workers are laid off through no fault of their own, UI benefits temporarily replace a fraction of workers’ wages while they seek new job opportunities. UI is also a state-federal partnership: states are responsible for paying benefits, while the federal government is responsible for funding administrative costs and reemployment services.

The UI system provides economic security for working families, serves as a gateway to new employment and training opportunities, and automatically stimulates the economy by boosting consumer spending when unemployment rises. In the aftermath of the last recession — when Congress took significant but temporary steps to beef up the UI system — UI kept 5 million Americans from falling into poverty, saved more than 2 million jobs by boosting demand, and closed nearly one-fifth of the shortfall in GDP.

But UI hasn’t adjusted to dramatic changes in the American workforce. Globalization and technological change mean that many laid-off workers need to retrain for work in new sectors to become reemployed. Yet UI’s reemployment services — while highly effective — are sorely underfunded. In fact, as a share of GDP, the U.S. spends just one-seventh as much on workforce development as it did in 1979, and just one-sixth as much on labor-market policies that get people back to work as do other OECD countries.

Meanwhile, women are now primary breadwinners in 40 percent of families with children — a fourfold increase since 1960. Yet, far fewer women qualify for UI because they are more likely to work part-time, have caregiving responsibilities, or face low wages or erratic schedules. Furthermore, a growing share of the workforce — nearly 16 percent as of 2015 — is in an alternative work arrangement, including gig economy workers and other independent contractors. Yet these workers are systematically excluded from UI because it was designed for a workforce in narrow traditional employment relationships.

Exacerbating the consequences of these trends, many states have made draconian cuts to their UI programs in recent years. States have shrunk the number of weeks a qualifying worker can receive UI benefits, slashed the share of earnings that UI benefits replace, and tightened already restrictive eligibility criteria. 

As a result, only about one in four unemployed workers received UI in 2014 and 2015 — the lowest in the program’s history. When so few jobless workers receive UI benefits — and those who do receive only minimal income replacement — UI’s capacity to stabilize our economy is compromised, to say nothing of its capacity to shield families from hardship.

To make matters worse, policymakers in most states have woefully underfunded their UI programs by repeatedly cutting the already-modest taxes on corporations that are used to finance UI. As a result, 36 states had to borrow more than $62 billion during the Great Recession to pay UI benefits. If the next recession were to arrive today — even if mild — only 18 states would be even minimally financially prepared, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

A new proposal from the Center for American Progress, Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, and National Employment Law Project lays out a comprehensive roadmap for reversing these shortcomings. The report offers detailed recommendations to update the UI system, in three categories.

First, policymakers must reinvigorate UI as a workforce development tool. That means channeling more resources to the UI system’s successful re-employment services and related training initiatives, as well as ramping up practices, such as work sharing, that reduce costly layoffs.

Second, we must better insure more American families against the shock of unemployment. That means expanding UI eligibility to underserved groups and improving UI benefit adequacy by setting minimum federal standards for states’ programs.

Third, policymakers must put the UI system’s finances back on firm footing before the next recession. This necessitates introducing solvency requirements for states as well as repairing the Extended Benefits program, making it fully federally financed and more automatically responsive to economic conditions. 

However, even under a modernized UI system, not all jobless workers would be eligible for UI’s earned insurance; independent contractors as well as those who have little or no recent work history like recent graduates or returning caregivers would be excluded, for example. To help these individuals successfully seek work, the proposal also includes a new means-tested federal benefit called a Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). Modeled after similar initiatives in the United Kingdom and Germany, the JSA would be a more modest, shorter-term benefit than UI, with work-search requirements at least as stringent as UI’s. The JSA would also connect jobseekers to any resources needed to address barriers to employment, such as substance abuse issues or criminal records.

Strengthening UI and creating a JSA would do more than improve families’ financial security and prepare our economy to face the next recession. Such steps would also help reverse the long-term decline in U.S. labor-force participation; reduce costly layoffs; facilitate better-quality “matches” between employers and employees; and encourage the beneficial risk-taking that leads to entrepreneurship and innovation. That’s the stuff economic growth is made of. 

After decades of stagnant incomes and sagging workforce participation — and with the majority of American families feeling economically vulnerable — social insurance for jobseekers is overdue for an overhaul. The next recession, although unpredictable, is inevitable. Policymakers must begin immediately to shore up and expand critical unemployment protections before it arrives.

Rachel West is an Associate Director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

House Takes Stand Against Carbon Tax

Timothy Benson- June 24, 2016

The idea of a carbon dioxide tax fits in seamlessly with the romantic, often quixotic, worldview of the modern environmental movement. It’s a well-intentioned notion that’s untethered to reality, and which would produce few appreciable gains, while causing major damage.

Unfortunately, the idea is also gradually picking up momentum. While no state currently has a carbon dioxide tax on the books, voters in Washington State will decide whether they want to be the first to implement one when they go the polls in November. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District currently oversees a business carbon tax over a nine-county area in Northern California, and a county-wide tax is now in effect in Montgomery County, Maryland. In Canada, carbon dioxide tax legislation recently passed the Legislature of Alberta, making it the third province to enact one since 2007.     

In response to this gradual mainstreaming, 237 members of Congress voted to pass a non-binding resolution on June 10, putting them on record in opposition to a federal carbon dioxide tax. The House members supporting the bill argue that such a tax would be “detrimental to American families and businesses” as well as to the economy as a whole. (The Heartland Institute, where I work as a policy analyst, was one of many organizations that co-signed a letter of support for the resolution.)

The purpose of the carbon tax is to decrease carbon dioxide emissions by levying a tax based on the amount of emissions produced. But the tax is a prime example of the recoil being more dangerous than the projectile.

The carbon dioxide tax is inherently regressive and disproportionally harms low-income families. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that a $28 per ton carbon dioxide tax would result in energy costs being 250 percent higher for the poorest one-fifth of households than the richest one-fifth of households. 

The reason? According to the CBO:

A carbon tax would increase the prices of fossil fuels in direct proportion to their carbon content. Higher fuel prices, in turn, would raise production costs and ultimately drive up prices for goods and services throughout the economy…Low-income households spend a larger share of their income on goods and services whose prices would increase the most, such as electricity and transportation.

This is why most proposed carbon dioxide tax legislation comes with offsetting cuts to other taxes — known as “tax swaps” — or direct tax rebates to individuals and families. This is the case with the Washington ballot initiative — where even proponents of the carbon tax admit that it would increase gas prices by 25 cents per gallon statewide — as well as another proposed carbon dioxide tax introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives earlier this year. 

Another problem with the federal carbon dioxide bill is that any environmental benefits that it might produce would be effectively meaningless without concomitant legislation enacted throughout the rest of the globe. As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Oren Cass puts it:

The effectiveness of a carbon tax…therefore depend[s] not only on how it would directly alter the trajectory of American emissions, but also on its ability to affect global emissions by driving globally applicable technological innovation or by influencing the behavior of foreign governments. On each of these dimensions, the carbon tax fails.

William F. Buckley was fond of saying that as idealism approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive. This is certainly the case with a carbon dioxide tax, which would make everything more expensive for working Americans, leaving them less to spend and save — and all for no guaranteed environmental benefit. There might be some room to absorb the damage of such rose-colored schemes in a healthy economy, but certainly not at a time when the economy is still limping along.

These congressmen should be applauded for taking a stand, however symbolic, against such an ill-conceived proposal. Let’s hope that, if and when the time comes, they remain resolute.

Timothy Benson (tbenson@heartland.org) is a policy analyst at The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank located in Arlington Heights, Illinois.   

Don't Take Job Opportunities from Those in Need

Kamal Ali- June 21, 2016

Since Ben’s Chili Bowl opened up shop in Washington, D.C in 1958, we've worked with employees, commiserated with colleagues, and served a community that has a unique ability to recover from economic booms and busts — not to mention bounce-back from the misguided policies of our local elected officials as well our federal overseers, who always seem to know what’s ‘best’ for the District.

Businesses in Washington, D.C., like ours, have faced our share of setbacks, but I believe our best and brightest days are ahead. We’re committed to remaining in the communities we serve — not only by providing goods and services but also by creating jobs for all types of workers with various needs.

I stand with our city council in the fight to improve the living standards of the working class by raising wages and improving benefits. But tied to these important bills is another piece of legislation that would turn back the clock to a time when jobs and investment fled our city in favor of the suburbs. As a businessman, I cannot support it.

The Hours and Scheduling Stability Act of 2015 institutes a roadblock between me and my employees. It presents an undue burden on working parents, students, seniors, and workers with multiple jobs; it makes my job as a boss harder, and their lives as employees less stable. Proponents have described the bill as giving workers better advance notice of their schedules and consistency in their lives. If that’s all it did, I’d support it. But the bill goes much further than that. It not only requires me and my fellow business owners to post employees’ schedules well in advance but penalizes us financially every time a manager or supervisor tries to communicate with employees inside that window. 

For example, if one of my employees usually works the Monday morning shift but calls in sick or finds himself stuck on the Metro due to a line closure or delay, I’d be punished financially for asking his co-workers to pick up his hours or swap shifts. Essentially, I’d be left unable to communicate additional staffing needs in the face of any number of variables, from a late night playoff game, to a crippling snowstorm. I worry that this not only hampers my ability to do business but also scares away potential investment from other businesses looking to set-up shop in the District alongside me.

The bill also requires that I offer more hours to every existing employee before hiring a new part-time worker. This is a logistical nightmare for an employer like me. But, what’s more, it decreases opportunity for workers who aren’t necessarily looking to pick up extra hours. Whether they’re high school or college students balancing hectic schedules, working parents confronting shifting childcare needs, or seniors looking to supplement Social Security benefits without working full time, the results will be the same: the part-time jobs that many of my employees — and employees of other, similar businesses — have come to rely on will be gone.

Small business owners worry every day about how their employees will make ends meet. My own business is just as much about my employees as it is about me and our customers. The difference between this bill and other measures such as increased minimum wage is that we can’t just raise our prices by a few cents to adjust to market conditions. Instead, this bill would fundamentally change the way we do business by limiting access to a reliable workforce.

And, without a reliable workforce, new and existing businesses will have to decide if the District is the place where they want to operate — or if somewhere in the suburbs makes more sense. I think we all know what the answer will be, and I can’t say I blame them. Restrictive scheduling hurts established businesses and discourages others from setting up shop. That’s never a good thing.

Kamal Ali is co-owner of Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark restaurant in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Flickr mamojo (CC))

Who Has More Firepower?

Adam Andrzejewski- June 17, 2016

Analysis by OpenTheBooks.com estimates that the number of non-Department of Defense federal officers (200,000+) with arrest and firearm power exceeds the number of U.S. Marines (182,000). In 1996, by contrast, the official count from the Bureau of Justice Statistics was 74,500 federal officers.

Adam Andrzejewski is CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, the world's largest private repository of public spending with 3 billion expenditures posted online.

Hot Air: The Overblown Benefits and Hidden Costs of the EPA's Clean Power Plan

Jonathan Lesser- June 16, 2016

Last August, President Obama hailed the EPA’s Clean Power Plan as “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change.” Earlier this year, however, the U.S. Supreme Court put this “important step” on hold, and this fall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will review opponents’ claims that EPA overstepped its legal authority. Legal issues aside, from an economic standpoint, the courts are doing the nation a favor.

The EPA claimed that by 2030 the Clean Power Plan (CCP) will provide $20 billion in annual benefits associated with reduced CO2 emissions, plus an additional $14 to $34 billion in annual benefits from reduced air pollution. Obtaining those benefits, the EPA claims, will cost as little as $5 billion per year. With up to $54 billion in annual benefits at a cost of just $5 billion, the CPP has been sold as an environmental win-win proposition.   

It’s not.

The EPA’s claims don’t stand up under scrutiny. In fact, the EPA’s own climate model shows that the carbon-dioxide reductions required by the CPP will reduce global temperatures in the year 2100 by 0.013 degrees Celsius at most. Such a minute change in global temperature will have no impact on global climate.

What’s more, even if all of the signatories to the climate deal reached in Paris last December follow through with their promises — a big if, given that the Paris Agreement is completely voluntary — the same EPA climate model shows that the resulting emissions reductions would reduce global temperatures by less than 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2100. That’s roughly the same as the average up-and-down variation in annual world temperatures.

As for the projected $14 to $34 billion in annual benefits from reduced air pollution, the EPA arrived at those numbers by layering on assumption after assumption, like an endless set of Russian nesting dolls.

Almost all of those benefits stem from fewer projected premature deaths from lung and heart disease, thanks to lower air pollution levels achieved by shutting down coal-fired power plants.

The first problem with this is the EPA assumes, implausibly, that every death attributed to lung or heart disease at any age—whether those conditions were caused by air pollution or not—is “premature.”

Second, the EPA also assumes that plant owners will improve the operating efficiency of the power plants they don’t shutter. Here the EPA ignores the impacts of its own New Source Performance Rule, which can create a catch-22 situation: if you improve the operating efficiency of your power plant, you have to install additional pollution control equipment (because your efficiency improvements have created a “new” power plant).

Third, the benefits resulting from fewer projected premature deaths from lung and heart disease are not specific to the CPP. These benefits would also result from the EPA’s other air pollution rules, including the yet-to-be-implemented Mercury Air Toxics and Ozone Rules. In other words, the EPA has double-counted some of the purported benefits of the CPP.  

Just as the EPA grossly overstates the benefits of the CPP, it grossly understated the costs.

The EPA uses overly optimistic assumptions about the costs of new wind and solar generating plants, which are assumed to double in total capacity. For instance, the EPA assumes that new solar panels will be able to produce electricity long before sunrise and long after sunset, regardless of the time of year. 

Of course, all of that new wind and solar energy, much of which is generated in remote regions of the country, will need to be shipped to cities and towns. But the EPA completely ignores the cost of building those long transmission lines. It also ignores the cost of maintaining the backup generation that must be available when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine (such as early in the morning or late at night). 

Finally, the EPA assumes that consumers and businesses will install lots of new energy efficiency measures. But, rather than measure the actual amount consumers spend each year, the EPA averages the costs over the expected lifetimes of the hardware used. So, for example, if you spend $20 at the local hardware store on an LED lightbulb with a lifetime of twenty years, you spend only $1 according to the EPA. (Try that logic on your bank next time you overdraw your checking account.)

Here’s the bottom line: if enacted, the CPP will cost U.S. consumers, businesses, and taxpayers billions of dollars in exchange for CO2 reductions that will have no measurable impact on world temperatures and climate.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the U.S. should avoid all policies aimed at addressing climate change. But implementing the current plan based on the EPA’s flawed analysis — with its unrealistic and, in some cases, absurd assumptions — will have costs that are all too real and provide few, if any, benefits.

Jonathan A. Lesser, PhD, is the president of Continental Economics, an economic litigation and consulting firm. His report, “Missing Benefits, Hidden Costs: The Cloudy Numbers in the EPA’s Proposed Clean Power Plan,” was just published by the Manhattan Institute.

Entitlement Reform Remains an Absolute Necessity

James C. Capretta- June 14, 2016

Despite what presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been saying on the campaign trail, the need to reform the nation’s major entitlement programs cannot be wished away.

The primary cause of the nation’s fiscal problems, now and in the future, is the rapid rise in entitlement spending. In 1970, spending on Social Security and the major health care entitlement programs was 3.6 percent of GDP. In 2015, spending on these programs was 10.3 percent of GDP. By 2040, CBO expects spending on these programs to reach 14.2 percent of GDP.

Federal debt now stands at 74 percent of GDP — well above the historical norm for peacetime. As recently as 2008, federal debt was equal to just 39 percent of GDP. Federal debt is expected to rise rapidly in the years ahead as the population ages and the escalation in health care spending exceeds economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the debt will exceed 100 percent of GDP in 2040, and that assumes cuts in defense and Medicare payments that are unlikely to occur. An alternative and more realistic scenario shows federal debt surpassing 100 percent of GDP in 2030.

While entitlement reform is needed to put the federal government’s finances on a more stable foundation, it cannot be sold to the public on that basis. Voters are concerned about the nation’s budgetary problems, but they are even more worried about their own economic security. Therefore, reforms must be seen by the public as ensuring the major entitlement programs can meet their goals into the future because they can be sustained financially.

Over the past several months, I worked with four colleagues — Andrew Biggs and Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, and Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center — to draft an entitlement reform plan that would ease federal budgetary pressures over the medium- and long-term with reforms that would increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the major entitlement programs.

We based our reform recommendations on three themes:

1. Personal Responsibility for Retirement Savings. Most working-age households with middle-class incomes (or higher) can save and provide for their own retirement without overreliance on a government program. Hence entitlement reform should proceed on the assumption that limited public resources should provide a solid safety net against poverty in old age, while those who can afford to save for their own retirements should be expected to do so.

2. Market Discipline in Health Care. Slowing cost escalation in health care without undermining the quality of care requires higher productivity and more efficiency in how care is provided to patients. That can be achieved only by injecting market discipline throughout the health system, including in the major health entitlement programs.

3. Promotion of Work. Much of the federal safety net is designed to help households with inadequate earned income. But the safety net becomes counterproductive when programs discourage work and thus create unnecessary dependence on public support. Our recommendations promote work in all programs and circumstances.

These three themes helped guide the reforms we developed for Social Security, health care programs, and the safety net for lower-income households.

Social Security 

The current Social Security program provides benefits to nearly all retired Americans, including those with higher incomes, based on their preretirement earnings. But Social Security does a poor job of preventing poverty in old age. Hence we should move toward providing a universal flat benefit, set initially at the federal poverty line, to all U.S. residents age 65 and older. In effect, Social Security would become a guarantee against poverty in old age, rather than a program for partially replacing preretirement earnings for middle- and high-earning households. There would be a long transition from the current formula to the new benefit to ensure that no one loses accrued benefits.

Middle- and upper-income workers could replace expected reductions in their Social Security benefits with additional private savings, facilitated with reforms promoting automatic 401(k) enrollments and simplified plans for small employers. The 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax would also end at age 62, thus removing a major disincentive to continued work at older ages.

Health Care 

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, the federal government assumed significant responsibility for the nation’s system of health insurance and health care. Over time, this will result in lower-quality medical care.

The ACA should be replaced with a program with much less regulation. In our plan, employer coverage would remain the dominant form of coverage for working age Americans and their families, with no mandates or requirements. The “Cadillac” tax of the ACA would be replaced with a more rational upper limit on the federal tax preference for employer plans. Any household without access to employer coverage would get a tax credit (refundable for those with low incomes). The credit could be used to enroll in any state-approved plan. People who stay continuously insured would be protected against high premiums or restricted coverage based on previous episodes of expensive care.

The Medicare program would be converted into a premium support program, with a fixed level of support that beneficiaries would use to offset the cost of plans of their choosing. Medicaid would be separated into two components — one for the able-bodied and children and the other for the disabled and elderly — and converted into fixed, per capita federal payments to the states for the two enrolled populations. States would have substantial flexibility to manage the program according to their preferences.

Finally, the rules for enrolling and contributing to health savings accounts (HSAs) would be liberalized to encourage widespread participation, thus bolstering the consumer’s role in the marketplace

Safety-Net Programs 

The federal government spends about $400 billion annually to fight poverty (not counting health care programs), with unsatisfactory results. A major impediment is the lack of coordination among the many federal and state initiatives that have been created over the years. Accordingly, reforms to safety-net programs should emphasize work as the key to improved economic prospects, greater state control over resources to allow for innovation and coordination, and the elimination of wasteful spending.

Two major reform concepts — block grants and wage subsidies — should be tested at the state level. States could opt to receive a large portion of existing federal funding in flexible and consolidated federal grants, based on historical spending patterns. They could then design better-coordinated programs that move as many beneficiaries as possible into employment. Some states would also be allowed to use the funding to provide direct wage subsidies to lower-income households, effectively giving them a raise that the beneficiaries would see directly in their paychecks. The federal government would help facilitate the testing of this reform.

Planning for the Future

These reforms are not intended to create budgetary balance in the short-run. Large-scale change cannot be implemented in the major programs without significant transition periods, which means the reforms need to be enacted soon to reduce costs in fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five years.

Skeptics may say it’s pointless to worry about fiscal problems that are more than twenty years off. They’re wrong. Projected deficits undermine confidence in the future health of the economy: private actors are encouraged to plan for the worst and focus on the short-term rather than investing for the long haul. The result is a misallocation of resources that undermines long-term economic growth.

Entitlement reform is not optional, and it needn’t be feared by voters. Done right, reform can strengthen the safety net and provide even better protection for the most vulnerable in society. Delay, however, could be catastrophic. If we wait until a crisis is upon us, it will no longer be possible to design reforms with gradual adjustments; the cuts would be blunt and disruptive.

Neither presidential candidate seems poised to provide the leadership necessary to move entitlement reform forward next year. That makes it all the more important for Congress to keep pressing for reform, despite the many obstacles. Entitlement reform is an absolute necessity, as will soon become evident to everyone, one way or another.

James C. Capretta is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Let Taxpayers Off the Hook: End USDA's Catfish Inspection Program

David Williams- June 12, 2016

With the continued bloat of the federal government, it’s not hard to find examples of redundancy. When the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, mistakes are made, efforts are duplicated, and taxpayers wind up paying the price. There is, perhaps, no better example of this phenomenon than a newly minted United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) catfish regulation program.

The program tasks USDA with regulating and inspecting domestic and imported Siluriformes fish, including catfish, before these products end up on retail shelves and restaurant menus — a reasonable and necessary aspiration for food safety. The problem? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already inspects imported seafood. The best way to strengthen food safety is to streamline seafood inspection in one agency — the FDA — that already has the know-how to do the job, not by fracturing the process into two separate agency programs.

Fortunately, the Senate, led by Senators John McCain (R-AZ.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), took recent action to scrap the wasteful catfish inspection regime inside the USDA, leaving the fate of that program in the hands of the House of Representatives, and, ultimately, President Obama. Fiscally responsible Republicans in the House ought to lead the charge in putting the duplicative USDA program to bed.

The Government Accountability Office reported that the program will cost taxpayers $14 million a year — on top of the $20 million already spent over a period of four years. That $20 million spent resulted in no catfish being inspected. Budget experts estimate that repealing the USDA’s catfish program would save up to $170 million for taxpayers over the next decade. Writing about the USDA program, David Acheson, former chief medical offer for both the USDA and the FDA, was blunt: it “does not make the product safer.” Even President Obama has called for the program to be defunded so that government resources could be spent on areas of genuine risk.

The creation of this office is a classic case of crony protectionism. Imported catfish has been well-received by retailers, families, and professional chefs for years as a low-cost, healthy protein. But imported catfish has also caused segments of the domestic industry to experience unwelcome competition, thus prompting an orchestrated blitz against the product, aided by the media and cozy relationships in Congress.

Put simply, segments of the Southern catfish industry and one member of Congress, Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), wanted the duplicative program to be created in the first place and are using misleading information to support the continuation of what can best be described as an illegal trade barrier to imports. Now, they are asking leadership to avoid holding a vote on repeal in order to protect profits, actively trying to promote regulation through an earmark that was inserted in the Farm Bill eight years ago.

What’s worse, this effort on behalf of the USDA’s catfish program is an attempt to keep the House from doing its job by sweeping an opportunity to end a duplicative Federal program under the rug. This will does nothing but expand Federal bloat and promote duplicative government spending — not exactly conservative principles. 

Speaker Paul Ryan might have been speaking of this very program when, in 2015, he said:

One of the dangers we face here and abroad is cronyism, and cronyism in this manifestation means big government and big business kind of grafting on to each other, uniting in a common cause to rig the rules, to write the rules for themselves, to erect barriers to entry against would-be competitors who are going to compete with them. Guess who loses? Consumers lose. Freedom loses. Opportunity loses. Entrepreneurship loses.

Simplicity, consolidation, and clarity of purpose breed effectiveness and efficiency. By contrast, duplicative and wasteful bureaucratic programs serve only to put strain on budgets and defy commonsense. If the USDA’s catfish inspection program is not dismantled, American taxpayers and consumers will end up footing an unnecessary bill.

David Williams is the President of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a non-profit non-partisan organization dedicated to educating the public through the research, analysis and dissemination of information on the government’s effects on the economy.

Heritage Foundation- June 9, 2016

(Data Produced on May 12, 2016)

In 2015, major entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and other health care programs — consumed 52 percent of all federal spending, while the portion of spending for other national priorities (such as national defense) declined.

The Heritage Foundation's Federal Budget in Pictures enables all Americans to better understand the federal budget and identify important areas of reform.

Why Are Government Jobs Down?

Stephen Eide- May 2, 2016

In this weekend's New York Times Magazine, Annie Lowrey notes that the recovery has been slower for government jobs than for private-sector ones. But her explanations — implicit racism and imprudent tax cuts — miss the mark. As I explain in a recent report, one also has to look at costs, specifically those related to pensions, in order to fully make sense of why the public-sector workforce has still not returned to its pre-recession peak.

The Times article reports mainly on the state and local scene, and rightly so. "Government" employees mostly work for states, cities, counties, and school districts. The federal workforce composes only 12.5 percent of government employment nationwide. This fact is significant because state and city fiscal policy is different from federal fiscal policy, most notably in the commitment to balanced-budget requirements, and because states and cities are truly driving the decline in government jobs. State and local payrolls are around 500,000 below where they were prior to Lehman Brothers' collapse.

To go to the root of the matter, you have to look at both state and local budget data and the differences between the public- and private-sector workforces. Economists do not agree whether government workers are overpaid, but there is consensus that their compensation has a different structure that what is found throughout corporate America. Specifically, state and local compensation is markedly "back-loaded": Health and retirement benefits take up a proportionately larger share than they do for private-sector employees, and retirement benefits are provided mostly in the form of defined-benefit pensions.

In the defined-benefit model, the employer promises each worker a certain percentage of their final salary through their retirement years. This benefit is funded through a combination of employer (and often employee) contributions and investment return.

That last clause is key. Over the years, states and cities have become increasingly reliant on risky asset classes, such as stocks and alternative investments, to fund benefits. This policy was developed to minimize costs to taxpayers and employees, but in more recent years, underperforming investments have meant increased budgetary volatility. Market losses dig holes in pension funds that have to be filled by larger contributions by taxpayers.

Between 2008 and 2013, the last year for which full data are available, governments' pension expenses rose 32.2 percent, whereas state and local general revenues rose only 11.1 percent. Looking back to the dotcom collapse, from 2002-2013, pension costs went up 176 percent while general revenues increased only 60 percent.

Again, virtually all states and cities are legally required to balance their budgets. Thus, when a major cost category such as pensions rises more rapidly than revenues, some other spending commitment, such as more teachers or cops, gets "crowded out."

In my report, I estimate that, had pension costs risen at the same rate as general revenues since 2008, state and local government jobs would now be roughly 200,000 higher than their current total, and 500,000 more if costs had tracked general revenues since 2002.

To be clear, rising pension costs cannot totally account for why the state and local jobs recovery has lagged that of the private sector since 2008. And conservatives should understand that cutting taxes while your pension-debt totals keep growing is not fiscally responsible. The public-pension crisis is by no means unique to blue states.

But there's simply no way that, across the nation, diminished government workforces can be chalked up solely to a revenue problem. Many, many governments in blue states are having budget troubles these days, such as Monterey County, Calif.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; Hartford, Conn.; the Connecticut state government; and the Chicago Public schools. I'd add that racism is probably not behind Monterey County's hiring freeze.

Increasingly generous benefits are not the reason states and cities are spending more on pensions. In fact, benefits have become less generous, as a result of a wave of pension reform passed in the wake of the recent recession. Pension costs are up because pension debt is up. Unfunded liabilities — the gap between assets on hand and how much has been promised in benefits — are now at a 50-year high relative to revenues. The Obama administration has taken note of this troubling development in its "Economic Report of the President" (see Figure 2-v on page 69).

Rising pension-debt service means spending more on the costs of the past. Governments are, in effect, compensating workers and retirees for services the public enjoyed many years ago. The more you have to spend on the costs of the past, the less you have to spend on the costs of the present, such as hiring new employees.

Of course, the larger question is, do we have a problem at all if government jobs are down? I think we probably do, for two reasons. First, even if payrolls are down, government is not truly shrinking if costs are rising to fund pension debt. Second, the public is accustomed to a comfortably-staffed state and local workforce.

Low class sizes are universally popular. Structure fires have declined dramatically in recent decades, and a modest increase in emergency-response times may not be medically consequential, but public pressure to keep emergency-response times low will continue to prop up firefighter and emergency-services staffing levels. Cities can't turn to robots to improve police-community relations. It is probably not a coincidence that the most popular level of government, local government, also happens to employ most of the public-sector workforce.

At the very least, governments should possess the flexibility to rehire as needed. But that is easier said than done when so much of their new revenue growth is being consumed by pension-debt service costs.

The gap between public- and private-sector employment trends points to the serious and unaddressed fiscal challenges now faced by the state and local sector. It's encouraging to see prominent outlets raising awareness of it. But the way to advance constructive debate is to acknowledge that both blue and red states are struggling and to take a broad look at budget dynamics, instead of simply reaffirming liberal biases about those Republicans being at it again with their racial insensitivity and stupid obsession with tax cuts.

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

Chuck DeVore- April 26, 2016

Do the staff at national think tanks reflect the nation as a whole? Or are they more representative of the Acela Corridor, that narrow slice of America from D.C. to Boston where they are headquartered?

It's a serious shortcoming if national policy staffers too frequently have an urban pedigree, only have friends with similar views and education, and don't think much of their fellow Americans in flyover country, if they think of them at all. If staff at these institutions — who are charged with generating new ideas, turning those ideas into policies, and then convincing government officials to implement those policies — have little in common with the very people they claim to help, how can they be effective?

Elites' lack of familiarity with mainstream America is extensively documented in Angelo Codevilla's book The Ruling Class, and it was recently acknowledged by liberal writer Emmett Rensin in a Vox essay as well. Of the left, Rensin writes that

a movement once fleshed out in union halls and little magazines shifted into universities and major press, from the center of the country to its cities and elite enclaves. ... Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt.

But state-level think tanks likely don't share this national-level weakness. Where national think tanks generally draw on a narrow base of experience, then offer advice to the entire nation, state think tanks are apt to more closely represent residents in the surrounding state and offer solutions crafted with first-hand knowledge.

To test this proposition, I turned to Charles Murray's "Bubble Quiz" — a 25-question survey that attempts to gauge a respondent's "isolation from mainstream white America" (which, while receding as a percentage of the population, is still a majority). Questions include whether you've lived in a small town, whether you've served in the military, etc.

Murray estimates that the mean for a nationally representative sample would be 44, with a lower score indicating more isolation from, and ignorance of, mainstream culture and experiences. When Murray analyzed scores from those who took the quiz online through PBS, he found that elite enclaves from Manhattan to Silicon Valley — and even Austin — had median scores ranging from 12.5 to 24.5.

When I took the quiz myself, I received a 50 — in spite of graduating from an elite school (Claremont McKenna College on an Army ROTC scholarship) and whiffing many of the pop-culture questions dealing with the likes of NASCAR and television.

Curious, I asked my colleagues at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a state-level conservative think tank, to take it. My hunch was that they would score pretty close to Murray's national mean of 44.

In fact, they had a median score of 50. Here's the full distribution of scores from our staff and interns:

My bet is that most national think tanks inside the Washington Beltway would have a Bubble Quiz score more Manhattanite than Middle American. I advanced this theory when I circulated TPPF's results in an office email, prompting a colleague to reply, observing:

I agree with you about the DC-based think tanks. During my nearly 13-year DC experience, I purposely spent every bit of vacation back here in God's Country [Texas] because I saw the bubble and didn't want to get sucked in. I keep a copy of Dr. Codevilla's book, "The Ruling Class," in my office to remind me about that bubble. And shop Walmart (1/2 the price of Target).

Perhaps Murray should add a question about shopping at Walmart to his next iteration of the Bubble Quiz.

America's ongoing turmoil is partly fueled by the growing distrust between the cloistered elites and the rest of the nation. This points to the vital importance of state-level think tanks and their mission to formulate effective policies based on personal connections with average Americans. Further, it suggests that a return to federalism would not only result in policies tailored to specific regions, but also result in less resentment directed at a distant, condescending ruling class demanding compliance with its narrow worldview.

Chuck DeVore is a vice president with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served in the California State Assembly from 2004 to 2010.

School Reformers Must Stop Giving Parents a Pass

Frederick M. Hess & Gerard Robinson- April 25, 2016

Kudos to state representative Gregory Holloway. The black Mississippi Democrat, a veteran legislator, has proposed a bill asking schools to grade parental involvement in their children's education. Called the Parental Involvement and Accountability Act, the bill addresses a crucial issue that has become too hot to touch for most politicians.

The case for responsible parenting may seem too obvious to merit discussion, but it's the elephant in the room that no one is talking about when it comes to schooling. This has hurt children, undermined efforts to improve schools, and embittered educators.

Not so long ago, American education-reform discussions were full of talk about parental responsibility and had too little mention of holding schools and teachers accountable. How times have changed. Today, there is an intense and generally healthy focus on ensuring that schools and teachers are doing their part. Along the way, though, the insistence that parents also do their part has been lost. We've worked so hard to avoid blaming parents that it's become controversial to even acknowledge that some parents aren't holding up their end of the bargain.

We got to this point by following a path of good intentions. In the No Child Left Behind era of school accountability, talk of parental responsibility sounded to many reformers and civil-rights leaders like an attempt to excuse bad schools and lousy educators. The resulting overcorrection has led to a careful-not-to-offend tolerance of the kind of parental behavior that would once have been roundly condemned. Today, we're loath to say much about parental responsibility when children skip school or don't do their homework. There are far too many cases where only a handful of parents attend PTA meetings — even when educators rearrange their schedules to accommodate parents. The status quo is especially destructive because it disproportionately affects schools with the most at-risk students.

Those who dare to talk about parental responsibility, Republican or Democrat, risk being attacked for doing so, sometimes in the most vitriolic terms. Indeed, some of President Obama's harshest criticism on the left has come when he has challenged black fathers on parenting. Indeed, Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of 2016 National Book Award and a leading light of the contemporary left, denounced the president's stance in a 2013 commencement speech at Morehouse College, saying, "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else."

Research echoes common sense when it comes to the profound effect that parents have on their children's academic outcomes. Children who are read to, talked to, and taught patience and self-discipline are far more likely than those who are not to succeed in school. As a study published in the journal Pediatrics demonstrates, whether and how a parent monitors his child's exposure to television has an impact on everything from school performance to obesity. Common Sense Media, which provides information about children's entertainment media and television habits, reports that nearly two-thirds of preteens watch television every day — most of them for many hours, and that half of all teens regularly watch television or use social media while doing homework.

Parenting is hard, demanding, unrelenting, and sometimes exasperating work, especially for an overworked, struggling mother or father. But that's where clear public expectations can help. While American society has grown quite comfortable using social pressure to discourage smoking and excessive drinking, we're reluctant to be equally assertive about encouraging parents to read to their kids, treat teachers with respect, and make sure that their children get to school on time.

Today, educators are increasingly being asked to be accountable for how much a student learns. Yet, what a pupil retains is a multifaceted product that depends, in part, on how much they study at home and whether they take their studies seriously. This is an important reality to remember. Teachers should not be blamed for things that are beyond their control. Recent debates about teachers who feel accused this way have been fraught with distrust and ill will. It will be far easier to forge trust and find common ground if we acknowledge that successful students require the help of responsible parents as well as accountable educators.

We are not sure that Representative Holloway's bill is the best way to tackle this thorny challenge. We're inclined to think that a better way to start might be with local school boards' adopting a parental bill of rights and responsibilities that more clearly articulates shared expectations for both parents and educators. Still, Holloway deserves great credit for his willingness to put a tough issue front and center, and we hope that his example will find imitators and fuel healthy debate.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Common Sense School Reform. Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at AEI, former president of the Black Alliance for Education Options, and former schools chief in Florida and secretary of education in Virginia.

A Right to Free Tax Preparation?

Marc D. Joffe- April 22, 2016

The founders knew we all had the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but they apparently did not know that we also have the right to free online tax-preparation tools. It took Sen. Elizabeth Warren to discover this new inalienable right late in the 2015 filing season.

The founders might be excused for their failure of recognize this right, because in their day, the U.S. had no income taxation. The personal income tax would not become a permanent feature of the American economy until 1913. At that time, there was still no software and no internet, but there was also no need for technological assistance in complying with the tax.

As you can see from reviewing the original IRS Form 1040, tax returns were relatively easy to compute back then. All forms and instructions totaled a mere four pages. Most taxpayers simply reported their total income, subtracted some basic deductions, and then multiplied the balance (if any) by 1 percent. Only taxpayers reporting income over $20,000 paid graduated marginal tax rates ranging from 2 to 7 percent. This complexity affected a relatively small number of taxpayers, since $20,000 in 1913 was equivalent to over $450,000 in today's money.

Over the years, tax forms became more and more complex. The instruction booklet for today's Form 1040 extends to over 100 pages. While Form 1040 itself is only two pages, entries on the 1040 must be substantiated by a variety of supporting forms and schedules. In all, Form 1040 references 11 supporting schedules and 25 supporting forms. Not only is computing taxable income complex; calculating one's tax liability based on this income can also be very involved due to the Alternative Minimum Tax and phase-outs of various deductions. The complexity of income-tax compliance is especially objectionable because every other payment we have to make each year is either calculated for us or simple to compute.

Innovative firms such as Intuit and H&R Block have responded to this mind-numbing complexity by developing desktop software and, more recently, internet-based tools to perform many of the lookups and calculations for us. The cost of using such tools is typically below $100, well worth the money for the time and aggravation they save.

The two tax firms have even gone further by offering free access to their online tools for taxpayers who are eligible to file simplified forms 1040A or 1040EZ. These taxpayers have less than $100,000 in income, don't itemize, and don't have self-employment income. One incentive for the tax-preparation companies to offer these free services is clear. Taxpayers with simple filing requirements are often at the beginning of their careers. If they become Intuit or H&R Block users in 2016, they are likely to become paying customers in future years as their tax-filing needs become more complex.

But this isn't good enough for Senator Warren. On April 13, her office released a report criticizing the IRS' reliance on for-profit tax-preparation firms and proposed legislation directing the IRS to develop its own free online tax-preparation and filing service accessible to more taxpayers.

In fairness to Warren and her colleagues, a law enacted by a Republican Congress in 1998 did call for return-free filing, and it is true that the tax preparation industry has lobbied against the implementation of this provision. Further, the tax-preparation companies have inserted language into their free-file service agreements with the IRS that preclude the agency from developing its own return-free solution.

But asking the IRS to create its own tax-preparation software would threaten a repeat of the HealthCare.gov fiasco: an expensive development process that results in seriously flawed technology. The IRS' record is not promising in this regard. In the 1990s, the agency spent $4 billion on a failed system modernization. After that effort was canceled, more modest upgrade initiatives suffered from cost overruns, delays, and less-than-expected functionality, as shown in a 2003 IRS Oversight Board Analysis and a 2014 GAO Report.

Warren's report alleges that the tax-preparation industry and anti-tax groups have teamed up to prevent the IRS from simplifying the tax filing process. Her approach, endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, and other left-leaning senators, is to have the IRS complete our tax forms for us by harvesting data from all the W-2's, 1099s, and other third-party forms it receives on our behalf. Ultimately, they imagine that the IRS could implement a return-free tax system like those in Denmark and Sweden.

Taxpayer advocates are rightly concerned that return-free filing could be a gateway to greater government control over our financial affairs. Besides, private tax-preparation services already interface with many third parties that provide tax data, so it is hard to see how the technology-challenged IRS can provide substantial benefits in this regard.

Rather than socialize the tax-preparation industry, perhaps Warren and her colleagues should embrace the idea of shrinking the industry through tax simplification. Despite differing views about tax rates, there should be broad agreement across the political spectrum about increasing the efficiency of our tax system. Reducing the number and complexities of tax brackets, deductions, and phase-outs will both ease compliance and reduce the distorting impact of tax rules on economic behavior.

Marc D. Joffe is an independent public policy researcher. He also heads the not-for-profit Center for Municipal Finance.

A Real Agenda to Cut Poverty

Melissa Boteach- April 22, 2016

The American Dream is premised on the idea that the circumstances of your birth should not determine how far you can rise. Yet a growing body of research shows that a child's ZIP code too often limits her life chances, with factors such as failing schools, dangerous streets, lack of quality jobs, and a dearth of community resources coming together to perpetuate poverty. And a new report suggests even more bad news for the American Dream: As it turns out, where you live isn't just correlated with how high up the ladder you can climb; it also helps to determine the point at which you fall off altogether.

Multiple studies have confirmed that the rich typically live longer than those in struggling families, and that this gap is growing. A new study from Raj Chetty and his colleagues underscores that this gap is unconscionable, with nearly 15 years' difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest American men and over 10 years' difference for American women.But the study reveals something new as well: that the gap is place-based, with significant differences in life expectancy among lower-income individuals based on where they live.

Among the top 100 commuting zones, poor individuals had longer life expectancies in wealthier areas with more educated individuals. A poor person in New York City, for example, is expected to live years longer than a person with the same income in Detroit. In other words, there are not just "two Americas" — the rich and the rest of us — but also dozens and dozens of Americas on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, with policy choices dramatically shaping not just quality of life but also the length of it.

These disturbing findings come out as issues of poverty, inequality, and mobility have taken center stage in the political conversation. Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott recently held a GOP "poverty summit" in South Carolina. Further, the speaker has indicated that later this spring, House Republicans will be releasing a "white paper" synthesizing their ideas to cut poverty.

But if past is prologue, many of the House's recommendations will be a recipe to exacerbate and perpetuate the disparities that Chetty's study unearthed. First, under the Republicans' budget blueprint, struggling families would suffer no matter where they live. The recently proposed House budget protects tax cuts for millionaires while deriving more than three-fifths of its cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income people — programs that have cut the nation's poverty rate nearly in half.

But it gets worse. The solutions favored by conservatives have typically been to consolidate and flat-fund federal programs that are currently helping struggling families, and to send these programs to the states. There have been many euphemisms for this policy over time: block grants, "empowering local communities," "increased flexibility," and, most recently, Speaker Ryan's "opportunity grants." But new packaging doesn't change the reality. Block-granting and sending low-income programs to the states has historically resulted in deep cuts to core assistance programs, the inability of programs to respond when hardship rises during recessions, and wildly different access to help based on where one lives.

One example is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, or TANF. In 1996, the federal guarantee of income assistance was sent to the states as a flat-funded block grant. Since that time, the value of the block grant has declined by nearly one-third, and the share of eligible families able to turn to income assistance has dramatically fallen. During the Great Recession, as unemployment and poverty were rising, some states tried to help as many families as possible, whereas other states put up new barriers that resulted in fewer struggling families having access to help.

Now conservatives are proposing to do the same thing to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, our nation's most important defense against hunger. SNAP not only kept 10 million people from falling into poverty last year, but the program actually boosts long-term outcomes for children, including their health as adults.

Wildly varying programs at the state level isn't limited to TANF. Many states do not have a stellar record when it comes to acting in the best interest of their low-income citizens. Nineteen states have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving 4 million Americans without health insurance. "Flint" is a one-word reminder of how unresponsive states can be to disadvantaged groups that lack political power. And while conservatives trumpet the importance of flexibility and local control, many conservative states have passed policies to "preempt" more progressive localities from implementing measures that help families, such as raising their cities' minimum wage or passing paid-sick-days legislation so that parents don't lose needed income or their job if the school nurse calls them to come pick up their sick child.

As candidates and lawmakers debate solutions to address poverty and mobility, the last thing we need are policies that replicate and perpetuate the geographic disparities that leave a struggling worker in Texas with no access to health insurance while his counterpart in California can access Medicaid.

Instead, we should build off of the momentum in states and localities that are alleviating poverty and investing in families, which, not coincidentally, can also significantly reduce the chronic stress associated with a wide variety of illness affecting life expectancy. As noted by the Washington Post in its coverage of the Chetty study, "Among the 100 largest commuting zones ranked by the researchers, six of the top eight for low-income life expectancies are in California" — a state that has pursued many policies that mitigate the stresses associated with poverty, such as paid parental leave, a higher minimum wage, and investments in early care and education.

A serious agenda to cut poverty and promote economic opportunity would include these policies and more, investing in job creation, expanding access to high-quality childcare, and increasing opportunities for post-secondary education and training. It would help families manage work and caregiving through paid family leave and fair, flexible, and predictable work schedules; it would protect and strengthen the safety net, which is currently reducing poverty by nearly half. Finally, it would invest in high-poverty neighborhoods, as well as remove barriers to opportunity for Americans with criminal records.

There are many reasons for lawmakers and candidates to embrace these policies, not least of which is that they are very popular with Americans across the political spectrum. But Chetty and his colleagues have now given us one more important reason to reject the failed conservative proposals and instead make needed investments to cut poverty and boost opportunity.

Melissa Boteach is the vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

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