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Samuel Bieler, Urban Institute - October 5, 2015

Another mass shooting. For those keeping tally, that's our third this year and the toll for 2015 now stands at 23 dead and 12 more injured.

The violence outrages us, but when pressed for solutions, you can feel a palpable sense of hopelessness from our leaders. After all, if the deaths of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown couldn't drive federal firearm policy reform, what chance do 10 community college students have?

But maybe we are ready to hold ourselves accountable and acknowledge that we can, if we are willing, reduce this violence. Maybe 23 is enough.

For mass shooters like the one who attacked Umpqua Community College, permit to purchase (PTP) laws may be our best tool for cutting would-be shooters off from access to firearms. Background checks are important, but alone, they will not deter enough shooters: both Dylann Roof, who shot killed people in Charleston, and Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista, were able to successfully pass background checks.

These checks rely on records that background examiners may not have ready access to, or that may be incomplete. There may also be warning signs that, while worrying, do not rise to the criteria defined by the national standards: Elliot Rodgers's history of troubling behavior was well known, but did not provide grounds to prevent his purchases. Indeed, from 1982 to 2015, at least 77 percent of mass shooters (people who killed four or more people in a single incident) have been able to purchase their weapons legally.

That's why PTP laws are a necessary supplement to secondary market controls. PTP laws require that firearm buyers obtain a license before purchasing certain types of firearms. The requirements for licenses are different by state, but frequently require prospective buyers to undergo more extensive background checks or interviews with local police, who may have a better understanding of their community and be better able to identify warning signs in potential purchasers than a national computer system.

It is still not clear where the Umpqua shooter got his guns, but it is abundantly clear that he was able to evade the systems put in place to stop him. PTP laws might help ensure the next would-be shooter is not able to do so.

These measures would not end gun violence or mass shootings. In a country where there is just about one gun per every citizen, there will always be a few damaged people who manage to inflict a terrible toll on our country. But we are not helpless — we have the tools to intercept many of these killers before they strike. All we need is the will to enact them.

Samuel Bieler is a research associate in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. This piece originally appeared on the Urban Institute's blog.

Should Medicaid Recipients Have to Work?

Michael Ollove, Stateline - October 2, 2015

If Arizona gets its way, its able-bodied, low-income adults will face the toughest requirements in the country to receive health care coverage through Medicaid.

Most of those Medicaid recipients, and new applicants, would have to have a job, be looking for one or be in job training to qualify for the joint federal-state program for the poor. They would have to contribute their own money to health savings accounts, which they could tap into only if they met work requirements or engaged in certain types of healthy behavior, such as completing wellness physical exams or participating in smoking cessation classes. And most recipients would be limited to just five years of coverage as adults.

Despite its conservative bent, Arizona already has expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. In October, however, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey will ask the federal agency that oversees Medicaid to approve changes in the state's program that are designed to promote healthy behavior in a traditionally unhealthy population, while encouraging people to become less economically dependent on the state.

"The governor wants to help them move from a place of dependence on the state to independence and to be able to take care of their own health needs," said Christina Corieri, the governor's health care adviser. (The proposals would not apply to several categories of beneficiaries, including children, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly.)

Some of Arizona's proposals have been made in other states, and the federal government has signed off on them. It has rejected work requirements, however, and has never allowed lifetime limits on eligibility.

The work requirement and lifetime limit originated in legislation passed by the Arizona Legislature earlier this year. The law requires the governor to submit the same proposals every year, apparently in the hope that a future Republican presidential administration would look at them more favorably.

Critics say denying health care to people who don't meet the new standards punishes them for being poor.

"I think in some of [the proposals], we see a punitive strain and an assumption that, left to themselves, people will make bad choices and that we the government will make better choices for them," said Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C., notes that 60 percent of Medicaid recipients live in a family with at least one full- or part-time worker.

Health Savings Accounts
Though Arizona passed its Medicaid expansion in 2013, more recently a number of states have used expansion as an opportunity to gain greater flexibility from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in how they administer the program.

For example, CMS has allowed Arkansas, Indiana and Michigan to require or encourage beneficiaries to contribute to tax-advantaged HSAs. Beneficiaries can use the accounts toward copays — the portion of their medical bills not paid by Medicaid — or for health-related services not covered by Medicaid, such as dental, vision or chiropractic care. The idea is to force enrollees to build their own safety net to help cover their health care costs.

In Arizona, beneficiaries would have to contribute up to 2 percent of their annual household income to their HSAs.

But only beneficiaries who meet Arizona's work requirements or health behavior goals — such as completing well-patient visits or adhering to regimens for patients with chronic conditions — would be permitted to access their HSAs. And beneficiaries earning above the poverty level — $11,770 for an individual — who failed to make their HSA contributions could be suspended from Medicaid benefits for a period of six months; those earning less than the poverty level would be deemed to owe the state a debt.

Other states have received permission to impose similar penalties. For example, Indiana charges a premium to all Medicaid recipients and can cancel the enrollment of those making more than the poverty level for six months if they fail to make their premium payments. The poorest Indiana beneficiaries do not owe a debt to the state if they don't pay their premiums, but they lose eligibility for enhanced medical services, such as vision or dental care.

Arkansas imposes a debt on the poorest beneficiaries who do not make payments into their HSAs and it can deny Medicaid services to those making above the poverty level for failure to do so.

Arizona, which has 1.7 million Medicaid beneficiaries, also isn't the first state to try to encourage beneficiaries to adopt healthy behaviors. Several states — such as Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New York — include what are called healthy behavior incentives in their Medicaid programs, to nudge people to lose weight or stop using tobacco.

In Iowa, for instance, participants are asked to have a wellness examination once a year. People who meet their health targets in Indiana, Iowa and Michigan will see their premiums or HSA payments reduced or eliminated altogether.

Minnesota gives cash or debit cards to beneficiaries with pre-diabetes who participate in a YMCA diabetes prevention program. In New York, beneficiaries can receive cash or lottery tickets for keeping doctor's appointments or filling prescriptions for nicotine replacement therapy or drugs to manage high blood pressure or diabetes.

If approved by CMS, Arizona's Medicaid plan would be the first to use deterrents, rather than incentives, to push healthy habits. Those who don't meet established goals could be shut out from access to their HSAs. (They'd also forgo the chance to reduce their mandatory HSA contributions in the future.)

Working for Coverage
Arizona is asking permission for two provisions that CMS has not granted to any other state: establishing employment requirements and imposing a lifetime limit on Medicaid coverage.

Indiana proposed a work requirement, but it was shot down by CMS in January. The agency said that while states may promote employment through state programs operated outside of Medicaid, they could not do so under the Medicaid program.

Instead of being able to impose work requirements, Indiana and New Hampshire have had to settle for referring Medicaid applicants to jobs and job training as a requirement for receiving coverage.

Several health advocacy organizations in Arizona object to policies to exclude otherwise eligible people from Medicaid, which they say are contrary to the program's intent.

"We see some of these proposals as inconsistent with the Medicaid law, which is to have a safety-net program to provide access to health care to a population that doesn't otherwise have that," said Tara McCollum Plese, a senior director with the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers. "To take these people out of Medicaid at a time they still need health care services is not prudent."

Some national groups, such as Families USA, agree.

"Medicaid is designed to be an affordable option for people and putting a time limit on it is poor public policy in keeping people covered and healthy," said Dee Mahan, Medicaid director for Families USA, which advocates for affordable health care. "Lots of people are working at low-wage jobs, and at low-wage jobs on a part-time basis, and their incomes are not necessarily going to increase to the point where they can get out of Medicaid."

Others question the effectiveness of some restrictions. The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization, found that HSAs have high administrative costs. It also said that wellness programs have not been shown to be effective.

On the other side, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy organization co-founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, strongly favors the Arizona proposals, particularly the work requirement.

"It reduces dependency on government and encourages able-bodied folks to work," said Boaz Witbeck, the organization's Arizona policy analyst.

After Arizona submits its proposals to CMS, there will be a monthslong review process, during which there will be room for negotiation between the state and the federal agency.

When then Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, won approval for Medicaid expansion in 2013, Arizona's plan did not include these provisions. The current governor is not threatening to pull back from expanded Medicaid coverage if the federal government rebuffs the state's proposals, according to Dan Scarpinato, his communications deputy.

"The focus right now is on getting approval on this waiver, and we are hopeful," Scarpinato said.

This piece originally appeared at Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where Michael Ollove is a senior health policy reporter.

Robert VerBruggen - September 30, 2015

That's the claim of scholar John Pfaff, and it's rather intriguing considering all the attention lavished on mandatory minimums. (He says the rise in incarceration can instead be blamed on prosecutors' becoming much more likely to file felony charges after arrests.) The theory has been getting a lot of attention lately, including from David Brooks.

Here's the main contention from one of Pfaff's papers:

In practice, sentence lengths have generally remained relatively short, and evidence suggests that sentence lengths do not explain much of the increase in the U.S. prison population. For example, I have shown that in eleven predominantly northern states (chosen solely due to limitations in the data) median time spent in prison hovered around one year from the late 1980s through the early 2000s, with lows of six months in states like California and Illinois. 

Furthermore, in a recent paper I demonstrate that these findings are generalizable to the country as a whole. Moreover, data from these states clearly demonstrate that trends in admissions, not releases, drove their prison growth. Changes in sentence lengths had no noticeable effects on prison populations in these states, but prison populations in all eleven states would have flattened, and sometimes even fallen, by the mid- to late-1990s had admissions levels not grown. There is actually a fairly simple way to show that increased severity is unlikely to be the primary engine of population growth. Figure 3 plots annual admissions and releases from prison. If sentences were getting significantly longer, we should expect to see the dotted releases line grow more slowly relative to the solid admissions line — the gap between the two should widen. But except for a brief period in the early 1990s, that simply does not happen; as we enter the 2000s, the gap actually narrows.

Here's the chart (and here's the paper it comes from, which features some interesting simulations):

Pfaff is a law professor and I'm a journalist, and I'm more than willing to accept that aggressive prosecutors played a huge role. But I'm hesitant to dismiss the role of sentence length entirely.

First, his findings don't jibe with the (admittedly imperfect) official statistics collected by the Justice Department. The DOJ has numbers on the time served by people released from state prisons for the first time (as opposed to returning after being released to community supervision). These are broken down into a whopping 31 categories, from the broad (violent offenses) to the specific (nonnegligent manslaughter). Between 1993 and 2009, the mean time served for all offenses climbed from 21 to 29 months, an increase of almost 40 percent, which is comparable to the rise in incarceration during that period. Strikingly, there was an upward trend in each of these measures individually as well. Here's all the data dumped onto one messy, ugly graph with the 1993 numbers set to 1; the crime with the weird dip in the middle is "unspecified homicide":

(On a side note, I do I think we should focus on the mean time served, not the median. The mean counts every year served equally, and thus is skewed if a few people serve very long sentences. We want to factor in that skew if we're concerned about our total prisoner count, because someone serving a long sentence will contribute to the incarceration rate for a longer period of time.)

You can see time-served data that reaches farther back here from Vox, via the National Academies. The National Academies report cites an estimate splitting the blame for the rise of incarceration in state institutions about 50-50 between longer sentences and higher admissions, with admissions playing a bigger role during the '80s and sentences pulling more weight during the '90s. Pew also found a 36 percent increase in time served from 1990 to 2009. 

How to reconcile this with Pfaff's chart that fails to show a widening gap between admissions and releases? Here's my theory: Precisely because most sentences are short, changes to sentences won't show up as a gap for very long. Imagine 100 people commit a crime every year and are sentenced to two years each. 100 people will be admitted every year and 100 more — those who committed the crime two years ago — will be released. If you change the sentence to three years, no one will get out two years later, but the following year you'll be right back to 100 people being admitted and 100 people released (those who committed the crime three years before). And yet the number of people imprisoned for the crime will have permanently grown by 50 percent right along with the sentence. At any given time you'll be imprisoning three years' worth of offenders instead of two years'.

Simply put, the higher level of incarceration stays even when the admissions/releases gap closes back up. You don't need a widening gap, but just a sustained gap — which is what we see — to keep adding prisoners to the total, because the gap accumulates year after year.

Importantly, this gap can be created by rising admissions or lagging releases, so it's not a very useful way to distinguish between the two. One quick-and-dirty test, however, might be to look at each year's gap during the time the incarceration rate was growing the fastest, and see how much of it is explained by a rise in admissions since the previous year. On average during the period 1980-2000, rising admissions explained about 55 percent of the gap each year — if the gap was 100, indicating that the prison population grew by 100, admissions grew by just 55 — leaving a whole lot that might result from longer sentences. And some admissions growth is just U.S. population growth, and therefore doesn't contribute to a rising per-capita rate.

There's obviously no question that admissions rose, as seen in Pfaff's chart above. But he may overstate his case when he minimizes the additional role played by longer sentences.

Spreadsheets here and here.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

Are Cities, States Prepared for More Refugees?

Sophie Quinton, Stateline - September 30, 2015

The U.S. plans to increase the number of refugees it takes from 70,000 to 100,000 over the next two years. New York, Los Angeles and 16 other cities have urged President Barack Obama to accept even more refugees from Syria.

But is the country — along with the aid groups that help in resettlement and local communities that receive refugees — ready for an increase in arrivals? And where will the new arrivals go?

The increase could strain America’s sprawling refugee admissions program, a partnership between the federal government, international organizations like the United Nations, nine national nonprofits and their hundreds of local affiliates.

Cities and states may need to spend more money on social services for refugees, particularly if Congress doesn’t approve additional federal funding for resettlement. The Obama administration actually requested some $600 million less for migration and refugee assistance this fiscal year than it did last year.

Still, it can be done, say the groups that help refugees adjust to their new lives in America. "In 1980 we airlifted more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees, and they are now very, very much interwoven in the fabric of our communities," said Jen Smyers of Church World Service, one of the nine aid groups.

Who Decides Where Refugees Land?
The United States already accepts more refugees than any other country in the world. In fiscal 2015, 13,831 people came from Myanmar alone. Other top origin countries were Iraq, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Less than 1,300 refugees came from Syria, of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees registered by the U.N. The Obama administration’s announced increase in refugee admissions will include at least 10,000 Syrians in fiscal 2016.

Parceling out tens of thousands of refugees to U.S. communities takes advance planning. Each week, representatives of the nine nonprofit groups meet in the Rosslyn, Virginia, offices of the Refugee Processing Center, a State Department contractor. Some groups attend via conference call.

Staffers sit around a table and review a thick packet of refugee case files. The files contain the addresses of any family members the refugee wants to join in the U.S., medical information and other personal data. The nine staffers then talk through the cases and match each refugee (or refugee family) with a city and a local nonprofit that can help them adjust to new lives in America.

The U.S. defines refugees as people who cannot return to their country of national origin because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. Before refugees are cleared to enter the U.S., they must undergo a rigorous security check to make sure they’re not affiliated with a terrorist organization or a rebel group.

To decide how many refugees to send to, say, Allentown, Pennsylvania, each year, the State Department considers how many people local nonprofits say they can resettle there. Philadelphia-based Lutheran Children and Family Service (LCFS) settled between 100 and 200 refugees in Allentown, Lancaster and Philadelphia this year; Allentown’s allotment included 39 Syrians.

Every state except Wyoming has a partnership with the federal government and local nonprofits to provide aid to refugees (and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, has supported starting such a resettlement program).

In fiscal 2015, 2,288 refugees were settled across Pennsylvania, according to the Refugee Processing Center. Compared to Pennsylvania’s population, that’s not a high number. States such as Washington, Minnesota and Michigan take more refugees per 100,000 residents, according to calculations made by The Washington Post.

Allentown is a good place for refugees for a number of reasons, said Janet Panning, program director at LCFS. "Compared to Philadelphia, Allentown has affordable housing. And there are all these good employers who pay more than the minimum wage," Panning said. It’s also a diverse town, where 40 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Most importantly for Syrians: Allentown has a large and well-established Syrian-American population. There’s a Syrian grocery store in town, mosques and an Antiochian Orthodox Christian church. Panning can think of at least one Syrian refugee who was hired right away by a Syrian-American businessman.

LCFS tries to listen to what local leaders — political, medical and educational — say about its efforts. It also consults with Pennsylvania’s state refugee coordinator, a federal employee housed within the state’s Department of Human Services, who distributes federal grants for programs that promote employment, from job placement to day care. 

Although cities and states have the opportunity to weigh in on the resettlement process, they don’t have much control over how many refugees are settled where. "We really don’t have any say, to be honest with you," said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, a Democrat.

The mayor’s office in Dearborn, Michigan — where, according to the Refugee Processing Center, 112 refugees have been resettled this year, including 52 Syrians — told Stateline it couldn’t recall any formal discussions about refugee placement.

And once refugees arrive in the U.S., they’re free to move about the country like any other resident. Although Wyoming doesn’t have a process for resettling and supporting refugees, they are finding their way to the state anyway, Gov. Mead wrote in an editorial last year.

Straining the System?
The big national nonprofits that select and resettle refugees have called for the U.S. to help even more people: 200,000 refugees in fiscal 2016, including 100,000 from Syria.

If Germany says it can handle 800,000 asylum seekers from Syria this year, Smyers and others argue the U.S. can certainly accept more.

Local affiliates, such as the LCFS, say they can manage the increase the Obama administration has planned. For Allentown, the about 40 percent national increase might mean 30 additional refugees.

Lutheran Social Services of Michigan — a sister organization of LCFS — expects to resettle Syrians to the Dearborn area, which also has a large Arab-American population. There may not be enough housing available to settle more refugees in Dearborn proper, so refugees may be housed in surrounding cities like Sterling Heights and Warren, said Cheryl Kohs, the Michigan group’s marketing director.

What’s less clear is where the money to resettle more refugees will come from. As of early September, the U.S. Senate planned to cut funding for migration and refugee assistance by 14 percent, while the House would leave it flat, according to CQ Roll Call

The federal government spends a lot of money processing refugees overseas and then helping them to resettle. The State Department spent over $3 billion to assist and process refugees overseas in fiscal 2015 (including through grants to the U.N.) and to settle refugees in the U.S. (through grants to the nine nonprofits).

The $1,975 per refugee local nonprofits receive from the State Department covers 30 to 90 days of furnished housing, help buying food and clothing, and a case manager who can shepherd refugees through what can be bewildering first days in their new country, including tasks like applying for a Social Security card.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also spent over $1.5 billion in fiscal 2015 on grants that fund employment, health and other social services for refugees and protected groups, like victims of human trafficking. Each state’s refugee coordinator receives the funds and may contract them out to community-based organizations. School districts that serve significant numbers of refugee children can also apply for additional funding through an HHS grant.

Where Does the Money Come From?
Federal aid doesn’t cover everything. "Refugees would never be able to resettle based on what’s available in the refugee resettlement pot of funding," said Charles Shipman, state refugee coordinator for Arizona.

Private donations bolster the services local nonprofits provide. And states and local communities help pick up the tab, too, because refugees — who arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs — are immediately eligible for mainstream benefit programs like food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance for low-income families. States play a role in funding some of those programs.

When the refugee resettlement program began, in 1980, the federal government reimbursed states for providing cash assistance, Medicaid and supplemental Social Security benefits to refugees for their first three years in the country, said Ann Morse of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Now, the federal government only repays states for one service: providing eight months of cash and medical assistance to childless refugee couples or single adults, who don’t qualify for family-based benefits.

When refugees first arrive, they virtually all depend on government assistance. But refugees become less dependent the longer they’re in the U.S., said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

Federal benefits to refugees dry up fast, and programs are geared toward helping newcomers find jobs. When MPI researchers looked at the overall U.S. refugee population in years 2009-11, they found that refugee men were more likely to work than men born in the U.S., while refugee women were just as likely to work as U.S.-born women.

But although many refugees attain self-sufficiency, they remain slightly more dependent on government assistance than U.S.-born residents even after 20 years, the MPI report found. That may be because refugees sometimes lack the education or English skills they need to compete in the labor market, and wind up working low-wage jobs.

New arrivals from Syria, however, are likely to arrive prepared to compete. "Syrian refugees come with a lot of advantages. They’re a very well-educated population, and they often speak multiple languages," Capps said.  

Allentown’s Pawlowski, for one, isn’t worried about more refugees.

His city is among those that have said it would welcome more Syrians. Refugees arrive eager to build new lives, Pawlowski said. Many have an entrepreneurial spirit and start small businesses. On balance, he thinks the families that have arrived over the years have added to the local economy. "I welcome these refugees," he said.

This piece originally appeared at Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where Sophie Quinton is a staff writer.


Marco Rubio's Parental Leave Plan

Robert VerBruggen - September 28, 2015

In a speech at the Values Voter Summit on Friday, Marco Rubio offered a proposal for family leave. Under current law, most new parents (and those caring for the sick) are allowed to take twelve weeks off, but employers aren't required to pay for the time. To encourage paid leave, Rubio would offer businesses a 25 percent tax credit for any wages paid, provided the business offers all employees full pay during leave and allows them to take at least four weeks. The credit is capped at twelve weeks and $4,000. 

I've explained my thoughts on parental leave before: If the government wants to use taxpayer money to help new parents, it would be easiest and fairest to just collect the money through taxes, divide it up, and give it to the parents whether they take leave or not. This would enable parents to take time off without bribing them to, and each family could decide for itself what arrangement is best. Stay-at-home parents wouldn't be left out of the benefit, and neither would those who wanted to return to work as soon as possible — and in the latter case, those parents could be rewarded with higher pay for doing more work, rather than getting paid the same whether they went to work or not.

Even if we're going to fund parental leave, however, I don't understand why we'd do it the way Rubio proposes.

The normal way of doing this — the way endorsed by the Democratic candidates and actually enacted in a few states — is to collect money through a payroll tax and use it to replace some percentage of employees' income when they're off. This approach has much to recommend it. All workers pay in, all workers have access to leave when they need it (though not everyone will), and higher payouts for the rich simply reflect the fact that they pay more into the system. It functions much the way Social Security and disability insurance do.

Everyone will pay for Rubio's system, too — when the government collects less tax revenue, taxpayers need to make up the difference eventually — but not everyone will be able to benefit, even if they are employed, have a baby, and want to take leave. Currently, a strong majority of companies don't offer paid leave to both parents. And since the credit covers only 25 percent of the cost, many employers will still decide against giving everyone at least four weeks, as Jonathan Cohn has emphasized.

Essentially, we'll all be subsidizing parental leave for just a haphazard subset of workers, with bigger subsidies going to the richer ones, because the size of the credit depends on the worker's wage. Richer workers are also more likely to have paid leave to begin with.

Another problem is that the credit isn't refundable, meaning that businesses that don't owe taxes can't benefit from it, and thus will have no added incentive to offer paid leave. It's hard to say exactly how big the problem will be, considering that the bill the plan is based on delivers the subsidy through the "General Business Credit" — which can be "carried" to other tax years when it isn't fully used, meaning the subsidy is often delayed rather than lost when it can't be used right away. But it's worth noting that only about half of businesses subject to corporate income taxes had net income in 2012, and of those with income, more than 41 percent still had no tax liability.

This is a curious and somewhat convoluted way of implementing paid leave. It will be interesting to see how it plays with voters, especially relative to the Democrats' more comprehensive and straightforward approach.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

Ife Floyd - September 28, 2015

Safety-net programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP (formerly food stamps) lifted millions of Americans out of poverty last year, new Census data show, and the nation made historic gains in health coverage. However, severe poverty has worsened in the last couple of decades, reflecting the weakening of the safety net for individuals who can't work, are unable to find work, or can find only part-time, sporadic work.

An important new book by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer — $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America — offers a sobering account of parents and children living in desperate poverty and shows how the welfare reform of the mid-1990s has left millions behind. The authors intimately portray families from places as diverse as Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, finding that the number of households with monthly cash incomes equivalent to less than $2 per person per day — a standard of poverty usually associated with poor countries — has more than doubled since 1996, to 1.5 million.

Part of the problem, Edin and Schaefer explain, is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the cornerstone of 1996's welfare-reform law. Created as part of a dramatic shift in income-assistance policies for low-income families with children, TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had chiefly served families with little or no earnings. TANF offers cash assistance to far fewer families than AFDC did and includes time limits and stricter work requirements. 

At the same time, policymakers expanded assistance for moderate-income working families. Most notably, they strengthened the Earned Income Tax Credit and medical and child-care programs and created (and later expanded) the Child Tax Credit.

The evidence suggests that while many parents moved from welfare to work in the strong economy of the late 1990s and child poverty declined, the percentage of children in deep poverty — defined as cash income below half of the poverty line, or less than $12,115 a year for a family of four — rose by more than one-third between 1995 and 2005. And TANF has weakened significantly as a safety net for the nation's neediest families. In 1995, AFDC lifted out of deep poverty some 62 percent of the children who would otherwise have been below half of the poverty line. By 2010, this figure for TANF was only 24 percent.

By 2014, TANF provided a temporary safety net in the form of cash benefits to only 23 families with children for every 100 families in poverty, down substantially from 68 assisted families in 1996.

In some states, TANF barely exists as a safety net for poor families. In twelve states, fewer than ten out of every 100 families living in poverty receive TANF cash assistance. 

Even as families struggled financially during and after the Great Recession, many states made policy and administrative changes that significantly cut their TANF caseloads. And even though the goal of welfare reform was to move families from welfare to work, states spent only 8 percent of their state and federal TANF funds on work activities in 2013, with 14 states spending less than 5 percent.

Policymakers should strengthen existing programs — or create new ones — to help the $2-a-day poor and other families with extremely low incomes. They can start by reforming TANF. Specifically, they should 1) create a new accountability measure that encourages states to serve more families in need; 2) reward states that place more TANF recipients in jobs, not those that simply reduce their caseloads; and 3) require states to spend a specified share of federal and state TANF resources on TANF's core purposes — cash assistance, employment assistance, and work supports.

Ife Floyd is a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Fund the Government for a Whole Year

Rachel Bovard - September 25, 2015

Once again, the specter of a government funding fight haunts the halls of Congress. Lawmakers must pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) by month's end to keep the wheels of government moving full-speed ahead.

Funding government is the most basic administrative task of Congress, one that is always fraught with political landmines and partisan headaches. This time around, the job is complicated by outrage over funding for Planned Parenthood (currently under fire for allegedly selling fetal body parts for profit), the need to raise the debt limit, and deep disagreement over whether Congress should exceed its self-imposed spending limits.

That's a lot of thorny issues to untangle in a very short period of time.

Folks concerned with fiscal responsibility know these end-of-year funding fights are dangerous indeed. Frequently they end up as pork-laden fun-fests — thousand-page bills filled with sweetheart line items for K Street lobbyists, corporations, and political allies. Often they turn on backroom deals where middle-class priorities are chucked out the window without so much as a consultation with rank-and-file members.

The government must be funded at all costs, we are told. Unfortunately, it's taxpayers who must bear all those costs.

This year's go-round appears to be no different. What makes it worse is that the plan now under discussion by congressional leadership — a very short-term CR — would land Congress in an even hotter, more dangerous funding crucible just three months down the line.

Forget April. December is the cruelest month for responsible funding decisions — a time when wills wane and the desire to get out of town for the holidays prevails over any impulse to put up a protest on behalf of the taxpayer. 'Tis the season of the very worst backroom deals.

Yet that's the path that Senate Republican leadership seems intent on pursuing. They've announced their intent to negotiate with Harry Reid to determine how the government will be funded — and a short-term CR would certainly give the Democrats more leverage when fiscal pressures ratchet up again in December. It all but guarantees that spending restraint and conservative fiscal priorities will be seriously compromised.

Here's the scenario: Extensive horse-trading with congressional liberals and the White House results in Republican leaders' agreeing to raise the debt limit and bust congressional spending caps in a short-term CR. Along the way, policies that benefit Main Street will be weakened or abandoned, and future Congresses will be encumbered with higher spending precedents — all in the name of having President Obama sign a bill.

Remember, the Republican leadership now so willing to accommodate liberal priorities in spending negotiations spent much of this last year telling conservatives that their priorities needed to wait.

Earlier this month, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a hometown radio station that defunding Planned Parenthood was an issue that "awaits a new president" — one who won't veto the legislation. Yet earlier, the Senate spent two and a half weeks passing legislation to authorize the Keystone Pipeline, knowing full well that President Obama would veto it.

For some reason, leadership feels principled legislation should be jettisoned if it would "complicate" CR negotiations. Yet must-pass bills are the perfect vehicle for principled — and popular — provisions that might otherwise be vetoed.

Rather than cave in while pleading urgency and expedience, congressional leadership should leverage that urgency and expedience to advance its own priorities. Forget about a 90-day, Obama-driven, short-term funding vehicle. Instead, Congress should pass a year-long CR that ends Planned Parenthood subsidies while funding the rest of the government at existing levels. 

A one-year CR would carry the federal government through almost to that "new president" Senator McConnell anticipates. He's told conservatives to hold out for the prospect of a conservative president in 2017. It's time the Republican leadership started heeding their own advice.

A ten-year veteran of House and Senate policy battles, Rachel Bovard is the Heritage Foundation's director of policy services.

New Data Reveals Stark Gaps in Graduation Rates Between Poor and Wealthy Students

Annie Waldman, ProPublica - September 25, 2015

A new report released Thursday provides a detailed look at the graduation rates of low-income college students. At many colleges, low-income students graduate at much lower rates than their high-income peers.

At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, only 35 percent of Pell Grant recipients graduate college, a rate that is more than 20 percentage points lower than that of their wealthier peers. And at St. Andrews, a liberal arts college in Laurinburg, North Carolina, only 13 percent of Pell Grant recipients graduate, more than 50 percentage points less than students who don't receive the grants.

The study found 51 percent of Pell students graduate nationwide, compared to 65 percent of non-Pell students. The average gap between wealthy and poor students at the same schools is much smaller: an average of 5.7 percentage points. That's because many Pell students attend schools with low graduation rates. (You can now look up whether poor students are graduating at the same rate as their classmates in our newly updated interactive database, Debt by Degrees.)

Ben Miller, the senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said that schools with large graduation gaps deserve greater scrutiny.

"Colleges have responsibility to ensure that the students they enroll are well served," said Miller. "If you're going to enroll someone, you should do the absolute best you can to graduate them, or else don't take their money."

The new report comes on the heels of recently released federal education data that has brought new focus on how low-income students fare at college, including how much federal debt they take on and how much they earn after graduation. The graduation rates of low-income students were not included in that data.

The group behind the new report, the Education Trust, collected the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients 2014 typically students whose families make less than $30,000 a year 2014 for a selection of more than 1,000 colleges across the country.

A spokesman for University of Missouri-Kansas City said many of their students are low-income and that the school is working to do better. "We are not satisfied with that gap," said John Martellaro. "We are investing more resources in our student success programs in an effort to narrow that gap." (Read their full statement.)

St. Andrews did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

At more than a third of the colleges studied, schools were able to serve their Pell students almost as well as non-Pell students, with a gap of less than 3 percentage points.

Other schools have managed to graduate Pell students at an even higher rate than their non-Pell peers. According to the new data, nearly 90 percent of Pell recipients are able to graduate Smith College, compared with an 85 percent graduation rate of non-Pell students. And at Western Oregon University, Pell recipients have a graduation rate of 50 percent 2014 nearly 10 percentage points better than their peers.

Both schools worked hard to ensure high graduation rates, including improving admissions policies and bolstering financial aid, as well as increasing advising and support services for students at school, says the new report.

The Pell Grant program is the nation's largest need-based student grant program, giving out billions of dollars annually. Yet for years, the data on Pell recipient graduation rates was mostly hidden from the public eye.

Although colleges are required to give the government graduation-rate data that's broken down by gender and race, the data is not required to be reported by income or Pell Grant status. Since 2008, schools are required to disclose Pell graduation rate data if it's requested by prospective students.

"It's kind of astounding when you think about how much money is spent on the Pell Grant program," said Andrew Kelly, the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute. "We don't have any idea about how much of that money goes to producing degrees. We don't know what happens to Pell recipients after they enroll."

In order to collect Pell graduation rates, the Education Trust filed requests for data through state higher education systems as well as with the schools themselves. Some of the data was purchased from U.S. News and World Report. However, only around 1,150 schools were included in the report, out of the more than 7,000 institutions in the country. The survey also did not include data from for-profit colleges, where many Pell-recipients attend school.

This piece originally appeared at ProPublica, where Annie Waldman is a senior reporting fellow. Sisi Wei contributed to this report. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

How Uncle Sam Uses Behavioral Science

Sherzod Abdukadirov - September 24, 2015

President Obama has issued an executive order urging federal agencies to use behavioral-science insights in designing government policies and regulations. The order argues that such insights have the potential to improve consumer welfare through better policy design.

When most people think of behaviorally informed policymaking, they think of the "nudge" — in which the government doesn't mandate a desired behavior, but instead gently encourages it, for example by making it the default. For example, some have suggested making retirement savings and organ donation opt-out rather than opt-in.

This may sound innocuous, but there are two major concerns. First, even with a nudge, regulators must assume the role of arbiters in deciding what constitutes consumers’ best interests. And second, the president's order is not restricted to nudges; regulators reserve the right to impose choices on consumers, even against consumers’ wills, if they deem consumers irrational and unable to make the right decisions.

One can easily see how this may lead to mischief and politically motivated reasoning. The evidence shows that behavioral science is often used to advance political agendas or ineffective policies, rather than consumer welfare.

Consider the Department of Energy, which has been at the forefront of using behavioral science in policymaking. The DOE routinely mandates higher energy-efficiency standards for a wide range of appliances and justifies the regulations using behavioral insights. Specifically, it claims that more efficient appliances are a good buy, making up for their higher prices through energy savings, and blames consumer myopia for the fact that cheaper, less efficient appliances are more popular.

Unfortunately, the evidence marshaled by the agency for consumer myopia is highly dubious. For example, the latest standard for residential dishwashers promises consumers a savings of $3 over 15 years — it takes twelve years just to cover the higher up-front price — while the standard for clothes dryers delivers $14 in savings over 16 years, with the higher price covered after five years.

That DOE would declare consumers irrational for not chasing trivial, long-term savings defies common sense. And when one considers the fact that another objective for energy-efficiency regulations is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it becomes clear that the agency’s motivation may have less to do with improving consumer welfare and more to do with hitting its environmental goals. The use of behavioral insights in policy opens the door for agencies to impose more stringent regulations that aim to advance the administration’s agenda rather than consumer welfare.

Even when the estimated savings are substantial, the regulations may not benefit consumers. Studies show that DOE’s estimates are typically based on engineering models that overestimate energy savings. In addition, consumers may be rationally concerned about the large up-front costs of more efficient appliances, especially in the face of uncertain future savings. Consequently, what looks like an irrational choice to a regulator could in fact be the optimal choice for consumers.

Importantly, economists Ted Gayer and Kip Viscusi point out that restricting consumer choice is a cost, not a benefit to consumers. The DOE’s practice of counting such restrictions as benefits — and therefore fudging the cost-benefit analysis numbers — has no precedent in traditional economics.

Other policies borne out of behavioral insights do not fare better. Health advocates similarly blame consumer myopia for the consumers’ failure to choose healthier foods. Consequently, they advocate policies restricting or manipulating consumer choices, even if there is no evidence for the effectiveness of these policies. For example, the ban on large soda containers, proposed under New York’s ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, so infuriated New Yorkers that it produced a backlash against the policy and was rejected by the courts. Another New York City regulation, which required restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, failed to reduce caloric consumption. Despite that fact, the policy was adopted by the federal government and is now imposed on the rest of the nation. Ironically, proponents of these policies viewed their failure as evidence to justify even more intrusive regulations.

Interestingly, the executive order notes the need to streamline government processes by “removing administrative hurdles, shortening wait times, and simplifying forms.” This certainly sounds like a good idea. After all, who could argue against reducing government bureaucracy? Yet one need not appeal to the newly fashionable branch of social science to come to this conclusion — it’s simply common sense. In fact, successive administrations have advocated reducing bureaucratic procedures.

At the same time, bureaucracy only grew larger.

My colleagues Patrick McLaughlin and Oliver Sherouse have measured the number of regulatory restrictions imposed by each administration since President Carter. They found that the number of restrictions has increased by 83 percent since the Carter administration, including an 11 percent increase under President Obama. So while the sentiment expressed in the executive order is laudable, evidence shows that agencies are unlikely to take the directive to heart.

Behavioral insights can lead to better policies, but the government’s track record is not encouraging. Regulators are likely to use behavioral science to justify more stringent and intrusive regulations that serve political agenda and not consumers’ needs. Thus, any promise of better policies should be taken with a grain of salt.

Sherzod Abdukadirov is a research fellow in the Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Chilling Testimony on the Clean Power Plan

Thomas K. Lindsay - September 23, 2015

The U.S. House of Representatives held hearings earlier this month to learn from states their assessments of the likely effectiveness, cost, and legality of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, a federal rule that would require a 32 percent reduction in power-plant carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels. The targets would be phased in between 2022 and 2030. Before the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on the Environment, Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, offered some chilling testimony on the likely consequences of the plan.

Shaw warned the committee that the EPA has failed to provide the states sufficient time to submit their State Implementation Plans, which are due in September 2016. States that require additional time are allowed to craft a preliminary filing and to ask for an extension of no more than two years. But this extension, said Shaw, isn't enough. For example, the Texas legislature meets biennially, with its next session starting in January 2017. Even with an extension, that will be too late for the legislature to give state agencies sufficient guidelines for implementing a plan.

Worse, according to Shaw, is that many of the economic benefits EPA says the plan will have are merely "co-benefits from reductions of non-[greenhouse gas] pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, and even these benefits are suspect." It is "irrational" on EPA's part, he said, to "claim a health benefit from reduction in a pollutant in areas where the EPA has already determined that the current concentration of the pollutant is adequate to protect human health."

Worst of all, even the EPA's claimed environmental benefits don't come from an actual impact on climate change or sea levels, but instead are based on the administration's estimate of the "social cost of carbon," as well as a claim that the plan will give the U.S. a stronger bargaining position at the climate summit in December. The agency's analysis indicates that the Clean Power Plan will lower global temperatures by just 0.018 degrees Celsius, will reduce the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide by less than one-half of 1 percent, and will reduce rising sea levels by one hundredth of an inch. These effects are not promised to take place until the year 2100.

What will it cost American taxpayers to produce these outcomes? According to a study issued by National Economic Research Associates, the Clean Power Plan will cause "double-digit electricity rate increases" in 43 states, with a total national cost that could reach $479 billion over 15 years. Our country's poorest and most vulnerable members will be least able to afford the higher bills. Critics of the Clean Power Plan point to Europe, which is already experiencing energy poverty, forcing low-income families and senior citizens on fixed incomes to choose either food or heating.

While the Clean Power Plan will require a massive tax increase and regressive consumer rate hikes, it simultaneously will reduce the number of those employed and thus able to shoulder the new tax burden. The plan is estimated to cause "an average loss of 47,000-49,000 jobs nationally per year from 2017 to 2030." The damage will be especially concentrated in states, like Shaw's Texas, where coal mining and coal-fired power plants have a strong presence.

Shaw's testimony bookends that of Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. Shaw demonstrates the impracticality and expense of the Clean Power Plan, while Tribe, testifying in March before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, went so far as to charge that the Clean Power Plan "impermissibly trenches on state authority over intrastate energy regulation ... and raises serious questions under the Tenth Amendment and long-settled principles of federalism."

The legal, political, and administrative challenges to the Clean Power Plan appear to be gathering steam. At present, six governors have indicated that they will refuse to submit a State Implementation Plan and intend in no other way to comply with the Clean Power Plan. Recently, Governor John Kasich (R-Ohio) released his letter to the president asking him to "suspend implementation" of the plan until all legal appeals are resolved.

The number of states that have announced that they will file lawsuits against the plan has now reached 17, with Colorado becoming the latest. The Colorado Attorney General's office indicated that the state would join the lawsuit once the final rule is published in the Federal Register, which is expected in late October.

Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Centers for Tenth Amendment Action and Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush.

A Quick Look at Four Sexual Assault Surveys

Robert VerBruggen - September 22, 2015

In 2007, the federal Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study estimated that 1 in 5 women in college had been the victim of sexual assault (attempted or completed) since enrolling. Looking just at seniors, who'd been in college the longest, the number was 1 in 4. Claims like this go all the way back to a Ms. magazine survey in 1987 (whose result was also 1 in 4). But the study gained traction and was used by the White House to push for stronger action to address the problem.

It was also the subject of heated debate. A Justice Department analysis of National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data gave an annual sexual-assault rate (including attempts) of just 6.1 per 1,000 for enrolled females — which adds up to roughly 2.4 percent over four years, and is actually lower than the rate for non-college women in the same age range. A Washington Post poll, by contrast, confirmed the results of the CSA in a national sample.

Now we have a new survey from the Association of American Universities (AAU), in which about 1 in 4 college females say they've been sexually assaulted in some way since enrolling. Or, to use a more specific number, 4 percent report a completed rape by physical force or incapacitation during the 2014-2015 school year alone. And it was only April when most students took the survey.

Here's a quick summary of how the surveys differ, with additional context where appropriate. (To put my cards on the table, I've been critical of the highest estimates in the past.)

Questions Asked

CSA: The survey asks whether students have had sexual contact or attempted sexual contact with anyone who forced them or threatened to hurt them. It also asks about sexual contact "when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep." Contact includes forced groping, kissing, and rubbing against the victim. (More than a quarter of victims suffered only attempts, and one-quarter of the remaining victims suffered sexual contact other than rape.)

NCVS: This is a survey about crime in general. Interviewers start with vague "screener" questions about experiences with crime, and follow up to get the specifics of each incident. Some of the screener questions specifically mention things like rape, sexual assault, and being "forced or coerced into sexual activity." They don't explicitly ask about incapacitation, which in other surveys accounts for half or more of assaults. Thus many say that the NCVS estimate is an undercount. However, when incidents are classified, even the NCVS uses a fairly broad definition of sexual assault, including "attacks or attempted attacks usually involving unwanted sexual contact between a victim and offender. Sexual assault may or may not involve force and includes grabbing or fondling." In the NCVS overall, about 30 percent of rape/sexual assault incidents are completed rapes; the rest are attempts, threats, and non-rape assaults. I don't mean to downplay these incidents, of course, but it's important to draw such distinctions when many assume the statistics are limited to rape.

Post: This survey "included five different types of assault: forced sexual touching, oral sex, sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object." It asked about both physical force and incapacitation and used wording inspired by the CSA. (It was partly a response to criticisms that the CSA involved only two schools.)

AAU: This poll is quite comprehensive, breaking incidents down according to the type of sexual contact and the form of coercion used, and even asking about the absence of affirmative consent. But for incidents involving force and incapacitation, the question wordings are pretty similar to those of the CSA.

Who Was Asked, and How?

CSA: Again, just two schools were included. The response rate was about 42 percent at both, with a bit under 5,500 women participating, and the surveys were conducted anonymously online. The lower the response rate, the greater the chance that the people who chose to participate are highly self-selected and thus non-representative of the population.

NCVS: This is a nationwide in-person survey with a response rate above 80 percent. About 160,000 people are interviewed every year, and the report covers 19 years of data. Importantly, though, college-age females are just a fraction of all respondents.

Post: More than 1,000 people (including men) were polled via telephone. The method used to select them has a typical response rate of 8 to 10 percent, and on top of that, 11 percent of those taking the survey dropped off before finishing it.

AAU: 27 colleges and about 90,000 women participated, but there was a 19 percent response rate, with surveys conducted online. Strikingly, 10 percent of respondents said they were gay, lesbian, or "other" in terms of sexual orientation, and about 1 percent said they were not male or female but "Transgender, Genderqueer or non-conforming Questioning or not listed." (Another 0.6 percent refused to give a gender at all.) Those numbers seem high, raising the possibility of a skewed sample.

This is a difficult topic to study. Most sexual assault is never reported to police, and surveys have all sorts of issues. As a result, the estimates are all over the map. The AAU's latest effort provides some valuable information, but its low response rate — just half of the CSA's, which in turn was half of the NCVS's — is troubling. The NCVS has a lot going for it, with a high response rate and huge sample, but there are legitimate concerns about undercounting as well.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

I've corrected the number of women who participated in the AAU survey. The number who completed it is closer to 90,000 than to 80,000.

The Ex-Im Fight Makes a Comeback

Brian T. Kench - September 22, 2015

Right now, both detractors and supporters of the Export-Import Bank are playing a waiting game. Everyone knows that, despite the lapse of Ex-Im's authorization this summer, legislators will try again to revive it. Some think it will come as part of the next spending resolution. Others think it could be attached to the next highway bill. Regardless, the debate continues.

From Ex-Im's defenders, we hear several arguments. First, they say that Ex-Im is needed to balance the competitive disadvantages created by the similar banks of foreign nations. Second, they claim that without an Ex-Im Bank, there'd be little incentive for American manufacturers to make their goods in the United States. And third, they point out that Ex-Im returns money to the Treasury — and claim it does so providing vital services that private-sector companies do not.

These arguments seem overstated, as total Ex-Im activity in 2014 equaled 0.198 percent of U.S. exports. But it's worth looking at all three in more detail, as we do in our recent publication, "Basic Economics of the Export-Import Bank of the United States."

As we show, export subsidies used to "level the international playing field" actually create a deadweight loss in the domestic economy. The bottom line is that the gains from a retaliatory subsidy are less than the costs of that subsidy. While Ex-Im may benefit the firms it subsidizes, the bank's overall impact on the U.S. economy is negative.

Speaking of the firms Ex-Im subsidizes, we also demonstrate that the bank amounts to a special privilege for the connected few. For example, nearly $8 billion of the $12 billion in Ex-Im Bank loan guarantees in 2013 went to support Boeing exports. In fact, of that $12 billion, 97 percent supported the sales of just ten firms.

What about the claim that Ex-Im protects American jobs? Some jobs at subsidized firms may indeed be eliminated without the bank's activities. And indeed, the associated goods and services may be produced by firms outside our country at a lower cost.

But the reality is that free and open trade creates jobs at the same time that it destroys jobs, and it leads to better and lower-priced goods overall. Upon the removal of a special privilege to one business or industry, other jobs may be created within other, better-positioned businesses or industries. The reallocation of resources to more efficient uses can be a painful process, especially in the short run, but in the end it creates a better-functioning economy.

Ex-Im supporters also point out that: (1) The institution returned $1.057 billion to the U.S. Treasury in FY 2013 and approximately $2 billion over the past five years and (2) the Ex-Im Bank's active default rate was 0.175 percent as of Sept. 30, 2014. Proponents say these results demonstrate that the bank's services are needed and that the bank is well managed. They further say that private banks do not — and, by implication, cannot — offer the services Ex-Im provides.

We must take issue with this last claim. Again, the vast majority of exports — 99.802 percent in 2014 — are already financed privately. Ex-Im steps in only to support marginal transactions that private commercial banks do not want to fund or do not want to fund on the terms that the Ex-Im Bank is willing to offer.

In other words, taxpayers are bearing financial risk at below-market prices to promote additional exports. The Ex-Im Bank is not solving a failure of private markets, but is instead crowding out properly priced transactions. As long as the Ex-Im Bank is able to price these transactions at below-market rates, the private market will not be competitive in those marginal deals.

We should not assume that the marginal transactions would be unable to secure funding if the bank were to be eliminated. The private market would likely step in for most of those transactions, though perhaps at a higher price or with additional requirements. The transactions that did not receive private funding would be ones that lenders deemed too risky at that price. Steering capital toward the best projects, and away from the worst, is a key feature of a well-functioning financial market; it is not a flaw.

Letting Ex-Im's funding lapse was the right decision for the U.S. economy. Ex-Im financing was little more than a subsidy that accrued to a select few industries within our economy — and the benefits to those firms are smaller than the cost paid by taxpayers. Let the private financial markets supply appropriately priced and structured financing for our nation's exports.

Robert L. Beekman is an associate professor and chair of the economics department in the Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa. Brian T. Kench is dean of the College of Business at the University of New Haven. Both are authors of recent research on "Basic Economics of the Export-Import Bank of the United States" published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Vance Ginn - September 21, 2015

The historic expansion of oil production in the U.S. has been a bright spot during an otherwise dismal recovery. But under an antiquated provision of federal law, it's usually illegal to export crude oil from the U.S.

Ending the prohibition, as a bill in Congress would do, would increase economic activity and may reduce gasoline prices. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's endorsement of the legislation late last week, and the full House’s expected passage, brings a renewed spirit of opportunity and prosperity. But the Obama administration has joined with environmentalists to oppose the bill.

Congress enacted the oil-export ban in 1973 because the Arab oil embargo threatened to make oil scarce in the U.S. and cause prices to skyrocket. Price controls and rationing were also enacted. These fiscal measures made a bad problem worse, as is typically the case with government intervention, contributing to long waiting lines at the pump and a severe recession from November 1973 to March 1975.

Though these other measures were eventually eliminated, the oil-export ban has stuck around. With the U.S. energy landscape looking drastically different, now is the time to end this ban and heal 42 years of damage done to America’s economy.

As seen in the chart below, in early 2011, owing to a combination of fracking and the "Arab Spring," the two major globally recognized crude-oil prices — the price of Brent crude sourced from the North Sea, and that of West Texas Intermediate crude sourced from Cushing, Okla. — diverged, with the Brent price becoming much higher than WTI.

That spread represents an opportunity to sell American crude in countries that currently don't have access to it. And as both the Congressional Budget Office and the Energy Information Administration have concluded, exporting crude oil would not drive up prices for American consumers. In fact, as the EIA reports, prices could actually fall, because U.S. oil companies would increase production, altering the global balance of supply and demand.

Even with an incentive to produce more, the U.S. will likely continue to import oil, because many domestic refineries are only able to handle the heavier Brent crude. With the increased WTI production from hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. and the lack of capacity to refine it, this has left a surplus of WTI oil, driving down its price and creating a situation where refineries must purchase Brent at a higher price. This contributes to higher gasoline prices and less economic activity than otherwise.

But this problem could be substantially resolved by ending the export ban, which drives a large part of the spread between the two prices. Basic economics shows that full competition on the global market will force the prices to converge to their long-term spread of about one dollar.

What about the plunge in oil prices since last summer and the subsequent drop in operating oil rigs? As seen below, this has so far not taken a toll on the colossal oil production increase, as the more efficient rigs remain online. The U.S. became the world;s largest producer of petroleum and related liquid fuels in 2013, whereby U.S. oil production has been three-fourths of increased global oil production and has reduced the nation's oil imports by 60 percent since 2007.

Freeing oil producers to meet global demands will help improve energy-price stability, and also national security, by reducing our dependence on oil from unfriendly countries in the Middle East. Ending the export ban is one way America can reclaim President Reagan’s vision of a "shining city upon a hill" when things otherwise look dim.

Vance Ginn is an economist in the Center for Fiscal Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. He may be reached at

Minimum Wage: Ben Carson Has a Point

Preston Cooper - September 17, 2015

At last night's two Republican debates, economic issues largely took a backseat. But one came up a few times: the minimum wage. In the so-called undercard debate, former senator Rick Santorum suggested raising it gradually. At the main event, Governor Scott Walker defended his previously stated desire to keep it where it is, citing the very real possibility that raising the wage could hurt employment.

One candidate, though, had a suggestion that falls between the two positions. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson suggested creating two minimum-wage tiers: a "starter" and a "sustainer." The former, he suggested, would be for younger people starting their careers, while the latter would be for older individuals who might be supporting a family.

In fact, America already has a policy like this. While the current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour for most people, federal law allows employers to pay a special minimum wage of $4.25, provided the worker is under 20 and has worked for the employer for less than 90 days.

While the minimum wage will always have a negative effect on employment, such a two-tiered system can mitigate the damage, since young people are disproportionately hurt by the minimum wage. Texas A&M University professors Jonathan Meer and Jeremy West found that while higher minimum wages had a strong negative influence on the employment prospects of young workers, the effects are much smaller for workers over 35.

This is because young people entering the labor force are more likely to lack the skills that command higher wages. They need to work first, at low wages, to gain experience that will make them more marketable in higher-paid occupations.

There are several problems with America's current youth minimum-wage policy. Most states, when increasing their own minimum wages, do not include a similar exemption for young workers. This renders the federal youth wage largely ineffective.

Additionally, the eligibility requirements for the youth minimum wage are too stringent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 21 percent of workers who make at or below the federal minimum wage are under 20 and thus eligible for the program. Since minimum-wage workers skew younger (half are under 25), even a modest increase in the eligibility age for the sub-minimum wage could bring many more individuals under its purview, thus granting them more work opportunities.

Carson needs to develop his two-tiered minimum wage proposal further, but it could work something like this. We could raise the eligibility age for the sub-minimum wage to 25 and remove the 90-day limit. This would allow young workers to get more comprehensive training in jobs that could then lead to higher wages, similar to Germany's wildly successful apprenticeship program. This would be the "starter" wage. Carson would also need to work with states to get them to create similar exemptions in their own minimum-wage laws.

Politicians on the left, with their religious devotion to raising the minimum wage as a poverty cure-all, could then target the "sustainer" wage for workers over 25, who are more likely to use it to support a family. These individuals represent only a tiny fraction of those in poverty, but raising this wage might be an acceptable political concession in exchange for an expanded "starter" wage.

Given the United States' current political climate, some form of minimum wage is probably here to stay. But changing the way it operates could lessen its negative effects while staying within the realm of political feasibility. Carson may be on to one of those rare policy ideas with both political and economic benefits.

Preston Cooper is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute and a Young Voices Advocate. Twitter: @PrestonCooper93

It's Christmas for Labor Unions

Trey Kovacs - September 16, 2015

Despite workers' overwhelmingly choosing to not to join unions, as seen in an all-time low union membership rate of 6.6 percent in the private sector, the National Labor Relations Board has given union bosses so many gifts lately it seems like Christmas. Many rules and decisions over the past year give an unfair advantage to labor unions at the expense of workers' freedom of choice.

In April, the NLRB implemented a regulation for union-representation elections. Under the new rule, the time frame between the filing of a petition and the date on which an election is conducted is reduced to as little as 14 days. The short time frame gives employees little time to educate themselves on the pros and cons of unionization. Workers should get as much time as they need to inform themselves about an important decision that impacts their pay, benefits, and work conditions.

This "ambush election" rule also poses a serious threat to worker privacy. It compels employers to provide employees' contact information to union organizers, including personal cellphone numbers, e-mail addresses, and work schedules, without any opportunity for workers to opt out. This will almost certainly expose workers to harassment, intimidation, and even identity theft.

And there was no need for this change. Before the NLRB's ruling, the median time between the filing of an election petition by a union and the holding of the election was 38 days, hardly an unreasonable delay.

Another decision handed down recently targets workers' wallets directly. The board overturned a 50-year precedent last month when it ruled that a housing and nursing service center for the elderly must continue to deduct union dues from the paychecks of workers who had authorized such deductions — even though the contract those dues supported has expired.

The ruling too has no practical justification. Nothing prohibits workers from paying union dues themselves if they choose. The decision is just another example of this federal agency tilting the labor-relations playing field in favor of labor unions.

Yet another way the NLRB has restricted workers' freedom of association is by making the removal of a union an extremely arduous, seemingly impossible, process, as I detailed in this space last month. In Alabama, it took workers at Hamilton NTN-Bower plant five votes over a two-year period to decertify the United Auto Workers as their monopoly bargaining representative. The reason for so many votes? The NLRB considered the previous attempts invalid after the UAW disputed the results. A majority of workers voted to remove the UAW in four of the five elections. In the only election that the UAW won, 148 votes were cast while there were only 140 eligible voters.

And in late August, the NLRB presented its latest gift to Big Labor. In the Browning-Ferris case, the agency ruled that companies may be held liable for labor violations committed by other employers they contract with, including temporary staffing agencies, contractors, and franchisors. The decision gives unions the ability to drag the parent corporation — say, McDonald's instead of the local franchise owner — to the bargaining table, and the legal capability to picket, protest, and boycott third parties who were previously protected from such activity.

The change would disrupt many kinds of beneficial business arrangements. That''s an unfortunate result, since these employment relationships have been a bright spot for U.S. job growth. For example, the temporary workforce hit an all-time high of over 2 percent of the total private-sector workforce in 2014, and franchise businesses accounted for 10 percent of new jobs created in 2013 and 2014.

It is important to remember that Congress constructed the NLRB as a neutral arbiter to represent the public interest in labor disputes, not as the litigation arm of Big Labor. Workers deserve better. It is up to Congress to rein in the NLRB and ensure it protects worker rights. One remedy available to Congress is to withhold funding for the enforcement of the most harmful policy coming out of the NLRB.

Trey Kovacs is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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