February 23, 2006

HUNGER IN THE USA

Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack.”—T-Bone Slim

In another sign of the times, a new study found that more than 25 million Americans had to depend on food from America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest network of food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters. This includes nine million children and three million senior citizens. Presumably, the number would have been greater had it included the many similar food services outside the network.

The number of people depending on these services has increased by 9% since 2001. This is no surprise. The US Census Bureau reported last year that the number of Americans living in poverty had increased each year since 2001, as has the number of uninsured Americans.

More than a third of those who depended on these services came from a household where at least one person had a job. According to an Associated Press report, the numbers “show that many working people don’t make enough money to feed their families.”

There is something wrong when people who work hard don’t earn enough to feed themselves or their families. There are two take home messages here. One, the country is clearly heading in the wrong direction; and two, it’s time to raise the minimum wage. As Holly Sklar, a policy analyst and co-author of A Just Minimum Wage, has said, “A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH…

Over 100 advocates for children and families attended a Public Policy Forum on Children’s Issues yesterday organized by Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia. The keynote speaker was Pam Costain, director of education and training for Wellstone Action and events included briefing sessions and workshops on organizing and advocacy. Today, participants will visit the legislature in support of children's issues--one of which is raising the state minimum wage.

Speaking at the forum, WV AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Larry Matheney said, “There are two wars going on today and I think both of them are wrong. One is overseas in Iraq. One is going on right here and it’s the war against the poor.”

Speaking of the war overseas, WV Patriots for Peace sponsored a vigil yesterday displaying the Wall of Remembrance, which contains the names of all US soldiers killed in Iraq. They were joined by many others, including a strong contingent of union members. The occasion of the vigil was a fundraising visit by Karl Rove.

Not a good day to forget one's camera...

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: UNFATHOMABLE

SPECIAL GUEST

In this Goat Rope posting, I'm pleased to present a guest writer on public policy. He previously contributed to a generally well-regarded collection of Hebrew writings. While he declined to comment on specific recent controversies regarding workers' comp or other issues, he agreed to share relevant parts of his earlier work.

So, without further ado, give it up, goat ropers, for our special guest, the prophet Isaiah...

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
and that they may make the fatherless their prey!

What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the storm which will come from afar?
To whom will you plead for help,
and where will you leave your wealth? Isaiah, 10:1-3

Thanks, Isaiah! You're welcome back on Goat Rope anytime.

Regarding interpretation, Bob Marley put it best: "Who the cap fit, let them wear it."

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

February 22, 2006

WORKERS' COMP: WV CHAMBER OF COMMERCE VS THE WIDOWS

An email alert from the state Chamber of Commerce supports cutting off benefits for widows and widowers of workers killed on the job or from job related illnesses, the Charleston Gazette reported today. According to the email, “Workers’ Compensation is designed to be a wage-replacement system for covered employees who may be injured in the workplace or while working. It is not designed to be a life insurance program.”

An interesting point. But then workplaces were designed to be places where work is done and for which workers get paid. They are not designed to be places where workers get killed—yet around 15 workers in the U.S. die from job related injuries or illnesses every day. That’s nearly 6,000 people a year according to the report: Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect (AFL-CIO, 2005).

A GOOFUS AND GALLANT MOMENT

Still, this may be a teachable moment for the empathetically challenged. With profound apologies to the magazine Highlights for Children, I’m going to borrow a little from those “Goofus and Gallant” cartoons I used to read as a child. Here goes:

GOOFUS AND GALLANT STORY ADVENTURE

Mrs. Smith’s husband died in a coal mine accident 12 years ago. Although she was promised benefits for life or until she remarried, the state cut them off this month because this is the age her husband would have retired had he lived.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

CHOOSE

Goofus says: “Who cares about widows? Cut em off!”

Gallant says: “It’s not nice to break faith with the families of workers killed on the job. Let’s fix this problem.”

Here's hoping West Virginia follows Gallant's lead.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: THROUGH THE ROOF

February 21, 2006

MORE ON HEALTH CARE

Pardon the wonkiness, but we're probably going to hear a lot more from the Bush administration about health savings accounts (HSAs). When as many as 18,000 Americans die prematurely each year because they lack adequate health care, there can be no doubt that there is a crisis. It's a shame that we're being offered this instead of substance. Here's a little more information about the problems with this approach.

There are two major approaches to insurance. One is a social insurance model where risks and costs are spread across a large population. No one person or group pays a huge amount and everybody pays something. A good example of this is the Social Security system.

The other approach is actuarial, where what you pay is based on your situation and history. Think of car insurance. And think of HSAs. Under the actuarial model, people with health problems would be like drivers with lots of wrecks and speeding tickets in their record.

Jonathan Chait summed it up pretty well in The New Republic (9.13.04): "Insurance is supposed to spread the risk: Rather than a few people (the very sick) losing everything and most people (the healthy) getting off scot-free, everybody pays a little bit. That's what company health plans do. But HSAs would encourage the well-off and the healthy to pull out of group plans; the more that do so, the higher the rates rise for the sicker folks remaining, leading more people to drop out. That's the vicious cycle that has driven up both insurance costs and the number of the uninsured. Bush's plan would accelerate it."

February 20, 2006

THE LATEST BAD IDEA: HEALTH SAVINGS ACCOUNTS

The folks at the Beltway Bad Idea Factory have been working overtime the last few years. The newest models off the production line are the Health Savings Accounts now being promoted by the Bush administration.

The new product is right up there with last year’s model of Social Security privatization, which unfortunately may not be dead yet. There are some valid comparisons between the two: both would be bonanzas for Wall Street firms and HSAs would be to improving quality health care what privatizing Social Security would be to protecting retires, people with disabilities, and their families.

DON’T GET SICK. HSAs are the ideal health plan for wealthy people who never get hurt or sick. They would allow people to put money in tax free savings accounts to pay for their own health care and for insurance deductibles out of their own pockets. If one is lucky, he or she may have catastrophic health insurance plans to pay for some major expenses.

DON’T SEEK TREATMENT. The inspiration behind the HSA concept is called “consumer driven health care,” an idea only a true believer in the market god could love. According to this view, health care costs are high because too many people have too much health care and don’t pay enough for it. This may come as a surprise to the 45.8 million Americans and 290,000 West Virginians who lack health insurance or the millions more who have bad and unaffordable insurance, but worship of the market god requires a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.

MORAL HAZARDS. According to market god theology, the technical term for the tendency of people with health insurance to abuse the system by using it when they get sick is called “moral hazard.” Members of the cult believe that if people had to make health decisions themselves (for which most lack the medical expertise) and pay more out of pocket for health care, everything would be just great. For a good analysis of these ideas, see Malcolm Gladwell’s "The Moral Hazard Myth" from the 8/29/05 New Yorker (available online at http://www.newyorker.com/).

The reality was pretty well summed up in a New Republic editorial published Feb. 13: HSAs “would actually make health care less affordable for people with little money and poor health—who, you might say, are the people most in need of assistance in paying their medical bills.” More on this to come.

WEST VIRGINIA HEALTH CARE NEWS

A more rational if incremental approach to health care is starting to take shape in West Virginia, although this may be more a reflection of how bad things are at the national level than how good they are here.

Governor Manchin has introduced bills which would allow some public and private clinics around the state to charge a monthly fee for primary and preventive care and which would create a $99 per month bare-bones insurance plan for adults. Thanks to Medicaid and CHIP (the Children's Health Insurance Program), the state has done an excellent job of covering children.

The state House of Delegates raised the ante by amending these proposals into one bill (HB 4021) and, more importantly, adding the creation of a panel of health care experts to come up with ways of providing coverage to the state’s uninsured residents by 2010. At this point, the state Senate has only supported the governor’s original proposal, although the House version clearly appears to be a stronger move in the right direction.

A public hearing on the subject will be held today in the House chambers at 6:00 p.m.

The Legislative Action Center on Children and Families is urging West Virginia residents to support the House vision of expanding health care. To do this, access the website www.capwiz.com/preventchildabusewv/, click on the “Support affordable health care alert," and follow simple instructions for contacting legislators. State residents can also use a toll free number, 1-877-565-3347, to reach the state house switchboard and request to speak with the legislator’s office.

GOAT ROPE CULTURAL AND LITERARY SOCIETY

An excellent book for people interested in the role of religion in American life is American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon by Stephen Prothero. The book is not about Jesus himself, but rather about different ideas of Jesus popular at different times among different groups in US history. Chapters are devoted to Jefferson's version of Jesus as an enlightened sage, the sentimental image of Jesus as "Sweet Saviour" popular in the 19th century, the manly image developed by advocates of "muscular Christianity," Jesus in the Mormon tradition, images of Jesus in the African-American community, and those developed within American Judaism, and among American Hindus and Buddhists.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

February 19, 2006

NO END IN SIGHT


In the wake of the mine disasters, controversy is likely to rage about miner and worker safety issues for some time at both the national and state level. The national AFL-CIO has opposed the confirmation of Richard Stickler, a former coal company official, as head of the national Mine Safety and Health Administration.


Photo: mourners gather outside Wesley Chapel at the Jan. 15 Sago Miners' Memorial in Buckhannon, WV

Stickler was proposed by the Bush administration to replace acting assistant secretary David Dye, who has been in charge of MSHA since the resignation of the controversial and industry-friendly Dave Lauriski. According to a story in today's Charleston Gazette by Ken Ward, by Dec. 2001, Lauriski "began the process of halting work on more than a dozen proposals to toughen mine safety regulations. Among them were efforts to improve mine rescue teams and provide miners with additional oxygen supplies underground."

In a letter to the U.S. Senate, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said "MSHA is full of former mining company executives, some of whom spent years opposing any regulatory efforts by the agency, who continue to be influenced by their friends in the industry. We cannot expect a regulatory agency to carry out a mandate of protecting miners when it is run by the very mine operators it was designed to regulate."

GOAT ROPE ORWELLIAN LANGUAGE LESSON: When public agencies entrusted with protecting the lives of workers speak more of "compliance assistance" for employers than they do of "enforcement" of safety laws and procedures to protect the workers in question, we have a problem.

WEST VIRGINIA ISSUES. Meanwhile, controversy is likely to continue over the recent state policy to cut off workers compensation benefits to widows of workers killed on the job when the decedents would have reached retirement age (see previous post). On a different front, state officials have tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the Sago Mine disaster to begin in Buckhannon on March 14, according to the Associated Press.

CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE. For readers interested in these issues who don't ordinarily follow the Charleston Gazette, I would suggest checking out the website www.wvgazette.com, particularly the writings of reporters Paul Nyden and Ken Ward. Nyden has been covering the workers' compensation controversy while Ward has written extensively about issues related to the recent mine disasters.

FROM THE GOAT ROPE MUSICAL ARCHIVES. In 1908, a song called "We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years," published in the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) press by "an unknown proletarian" pretty well sums it up:

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we're buried alive for you.
There's never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go and reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in!

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED