December 24, 2019

It's a tradition: annual Christmas Hamlet quote

That's right, it's that time of year again, which means it's time to quote  what the sentry Marcellus has to say about Christmas as he stands on the battlements of the castle of Elsinore in Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet.

The tone of the scene is pretty ominous. Things aren't going great in Denmark. King Hamlet (senior) has died under mysterious circumstances. Gertrude, his widow, married Claudius, his brother, with unseemly rapidity. Meanwhile, Fortinbras, the young Norwegian prince, is making warlike moves.

If all that wasn't enough, two guards on the night watch have seen what seems to be the ghost of the dead king on the battlements--and they're convinced this is an ill omen.

The guards, Marcellus and Bernardo, have invited the student Horatio, Hamlet's best friend, to join them in their lonely vigil, where for some nights past a ghost has appeared resembling the late King Hamlet, father of the prince who is the main character of the story.

Horatio represents a prototype of modernity, an intellectual familiar with the tradition but skeptical of it. Yet even he must concede the power of the unknown after witnessing the phantom, which he takes as a portent of bad things to come.

Marcellus then points out that there are also sometimes portents of good, particularly at this season of the year:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

At this point, all I can do is say with Horatio something that has become a mantra of mine on many things spiritual, "So have I heard and do in part believe it."

Would that it were so this holiday season and beyond.

December 19, 2019

Fatal to be hungry

I've spent a decent chunk of the last several years in working with friends to try to fight off attack on poor people in general and food assistance in particular. It would probably be safe to say our success has been limited.

Several of these fights are still in the works and are caused by the Trump administration's human wave attacks on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program).

While musing on that subject, I ran across a couple of quotes about hunger and the cruelty and the enormous condescension people show to people who are poor.

Let's start with cruelty:

"It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you."

Now cruelty's close relation, condescension:

“It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”
I'm not sure which is worse.

December 17, 2019


I think I've spent more time with Mister Rogers in the last month than in all the rest of my life (if you don't count Eddie Murphy's parodies on SNL). First I watched the documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and was kind of blown away, cynic that I am. I've also talked to several adults who loved the show as kids.

Then I felt compelled to check out the feature film starring Tom Hanks, titled "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," a fictionalized account of magazine writer Tom Junod's life changing encounter with Rogers when he was assigned to profile him.

As fictional as it was, it turns out that it was also substantially true. In case you want to run down this remarkable story, here's Junod's original article, published in Esquire in 1998.

And, thanks to a friend, here's a very powerful and moving reflection on that friendship by the author more than 20 years later as published by The Atlantic.

I think it's worth a look. And it's probably good to remember in times like these that things like this can actually happen.

December 06, 2019

Here we go again...

It's been nearly 10 years since I made a pilgrimage to Okinawa. When I was there, I made friends with a freelance writer who likes to ping me on days when some weird news story breaks from West Virginia...

...which is to say, we've been in touch a lot.

The best such days are when it's just something weird, like maybe a real X Files-type story. The worst are those days when WV makes the national news over some acts of bigotry and/or craven groveling to exploitative corporations.

The last year or so has been an X Files bust and a bigotry/groveling boom.

Where are Mothman, Bat Boy, and the Braxton County monster when you need them?

Let's start with groveling. Top of my list in that department was the time when a representative of a business group told legislators that we didn't need to update safe water standards since West Virginians are heavier, drink less water and eat less fish.And won the day.

For real.

That moment was another example of why I want to update the state motto from "Mountaineers Are Always Free" to "You Can't Make This **** Up."

But it's been a real banner year for bigotry. We had the state delegate who made a joke about drowning his children if they turned out to be LGBTQ. We had the Islamophobic outburst at the state capitol. We now have a public library board about to consider banning a non-sexually explicit LGBTQ-friendly children's book.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this.

I agree with what WV Senator Joe Manchin said in the wake of the publication of a photo of corrections trainees raising their hands in an apparent Nazi salute: "This is not the West Virginia I know or grew up in."

But things have changed here over the last few years. Dramatically. And, while the outbreaks are by no means confined to West Virginia,they seem to be occurring more frequently here.

It makes me think of the early phases of an epidemic. In Albert Camus' novel The Plague, a parable about the rise of fascism and Nazism that I've often quoted, the first signs begin when dead rats start showing up in the Algerian city of Oran.

Nobody noticed that much at first. Then it was just a nuisance. But pretty soon, it wasn't just rats any more.

I keep going back to something one of the heroes of that novel said about the epidemic:

"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences."

The book ends with a warning against being too complacent about such metaphorical outbreaks. The narrator cautions that:

"...the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."

December 02, 2019

Look for the helpers

I may be dating myself here (but sometimes that's only date you can get), but I didn't grow up watching Mr. Rogers. If anything, I grew up watching Eddie Murphy's hilarious SNL parody, Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood. My personality and sense of humor inclines in that direction.

Still, I was game when a certain spousal person ordered the DVD of the documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?

There's no denying that he had an incredible way of relating to children and helping them deal with all kinds of things. It's quite a contrast to the approach in my family of messing with kids by reading Poe to them before they're ready for it. It's also quite a contrast with the depths we've fallen to in the age of the Orange Bully.

One takeaway point stuck with me that I'd missed somehow, even though it's become viral on the interwebs. It's something Rogers' mother said to him when he was a child:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Some people find that over simplistic. Here's one critique from The Atlantic.

Personally, I think you could do a lot worse. With the understanding that sometimes the helpers are the hell-raisers.

November 30, 2019

Literary ordeals: thoughts on finishing James Joyce's Ulysses

Irish author James Joyce, 1882-1941

Sometimes I enjoy a challenge, like setting a goal and working through it. The goal might be something physical, like a marathon or trail run, or something like trying to learn a language or a musical instrument (one of each in my case).

Some of these challenges are literary, like reading War and Peace and such. Lately I completed a literary endurance run, to wit James Joyce's long, rambling, stream-of-consciousness rewrite of the Odyssey, titled Ulysses. 

(I think the unreadable French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was right in this at least: a myth includes all its variants, as in Freud's ideas are as much a part of the Oedipus myth as Sophocles' tragedy. Ditto Joyce and Homer.)

I thought about it for a long time, but every time a picked up a copy and flipped through it my head began to swim. I also wasn't a big fan of his earlier work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young  Man, which introduces the aspiring author Stephen Daedalus, who is also a kind of self portrait of the author. 

To be honest, when I read that early book, I sometimes wanted to reach out and shake the narrator, especially the parts where he was too precious to attend Easter mass with his mother. I mean, would that have killed him?

Daedalus shows up in Ulysses as a stand in for Odysseus' son Telemachus. The main protagonist of Odysseus of the story is Leopold Bloom, a non-practicing Jewish resident of Dublin who sells newspaper advertising for the living. He's a married to Molly, from whom he has been physically estranged for ten years since the death of their infant son. She's the unfaithful counterpart to Odysseus' steadfast wife Penelope, although the ten year thing might have something to do with that. The whole action of the book takes place in one day and night in 1904, with most of the Dublin action reflecting some episode of the Odyssey.

It was pretty exhausting, all in all. I don't think I would have made it through by reading it, but was fortunately (maybe) able to listen to all 30+ hours of it on my smart phone thanks to the local library. I'm also glad that I'm fairly up on literature, philosophy, mythology and such, since the book is ate up with all the above. Otherwise I would have been totally lost. I still relied on a commentary to get through it.

My final verdict (not that I'm a judge): it really was quite an achievement, packing all the references and ideas he did into an imagined 24 hour period. His stream of consciousness style of writing does a pretty good job of capturing what Buddhists call our "monkey mind," which skips from object to object like the critter moving from branch to branch.

The term "stream of consciousness" can be traced back to William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist, who wrote about "the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life." His style influenced many later writers from William Faulkner to Jack Kerouac.

So there's that, anyway. As the saying goes, it was real and it was fun, but I can't say it was real fun.

I guess I'm glad I did it. It was kind of like completing a difficult and long trail run in the summer: I enjoy having done it more than the actual process of doing it.

But next time I revisit the Odyssey story, it'll probably be Homer's original.

November 24, 2019

Random scary movie rant

I'm all about messing with kids' minds. In a good way. My family certainly messed with mine...or allowed it to be messed with.

When I was little, my dad read Edgar Allen Poe's stories and poems to me. They seemed pretty real when I would visit the ancestral farm in a dark hollow in Tazewell, Virginia, complete with an old family cemetery on the hill.

The torch was then passed to my brother, who pretended to call the Plutonian shores and ask for the Raven to come get his little brother Ricky.

I bugged my mother to read Dracula out loud to me when I was pretty small. Watched all the old movies.

When I had kids, I messed with them in a similar fashion. There's something fun about scary stories and movies, obviously. Otherwise they wouldn't be a billion dollar industry.

Come to think of it, many of the well known traditional folk and fairy tales that have been told for hundreds or thousands of years are pretty scary too. I think they serve functions of which we may not be fully conscious.

To paraphrase a well known saying, a mind is a terrible thing not to mess with...up to a point.

Sometimes, though there's a fine--or not so fine--line between the good kind of scary and the bad kind.

I though of this yesterday when I went to see the movie adaptation of Stephen King's Doctor Sleep.

I grew up on Stephen King. I can go for years without reading him, then go on massive binges. This  was one of those binge years, with nine of his down so far, usually in audio form and consumed while driving, running, walking the dog, or mowing. They vary widely in quality, by his own admission. And in...intensity.

Doctor Sleep was one of the most intense ones when I listened to it on CD a few years back.

As in, damn.

 It's the sequel to the "honey, I'm home" 1980 classic The Shining that featured Jack Nicholson as the father from hell..

The sequel is kind of about childhood trauma and the after effects. The main character is Danny Torrance, who was the little kid in the original. As a grownup, he's had to deal with addiction, self-destructive behavior, and inner demons.

This isn't a spoiler, but the main conflict in the book has to do with a group of people (at least they used to be people) who abnormally prolong their lives by feeding on the pain and fear of young children, especially children with special abilities.

The way they do it in the book--and especially the movie--is extremely graphic and disturbing. The movie version is even worse than the book.

I mean, really.

When I got to the theater, I was amazed that people brought very little children with them to see it.

I wondered if they even know what the kids were in for. If they didn't, it seemed kind of irresponsible to me. But if they did know, that seemed worse.

Don't get me wrong.

I'm pretty libertarian about cultural issues and hate censorship in any form. I tend towards the free range theory of child rearing. I think overprotective helicopter parenting is a disaster. I think a certain amount of adversity, discomfort and challenge is good and necessary for a child to become a functional adult.

But there are limits. And not everything is good for every age. Entertaining terror for teens and adults might not be just the thing for preschoolers.

As the biblical book of Ecclesiastes says, "to everything there is a season."

November 20, 2019

Lessons from Louisiana?

One of the more interesting news stories in the last few days was the reelection of Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards. It was a state that went heavily for Trump in 2016 and he campaigned heavily there before the election.

As was the case in Kentucky's race, a key factor was Medicaid expansion. Kentucky's Bevin tried to undo a lot of that state's progress in expanding health care (around 400,000) by imposing draconian reporting requirements that would have cut off tens of thousands. Edwards made the decision to expand Medicaid in his previous term, where it now covers around 500,000 people.

Here's an interesting take on the politics of Medicaid and what it might mean for the future. Sample quote: "In the last two years, Obamacare in general — and Medicaid expansion, in particular — have begun paying political dividends."

I'm reminded of a quote from the Psalms, "The stone the builder refused has become the chief cornerstone."

November 14, 2019

Call the point

In another lifetime, I used to referee sparring matches at karate tournaments.

This was before my pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Okinawa in my case), when I came to believe that turning our sacred art into a game was a sacrilege.

Still, one thing I kept from that experience was simple but worth hanging on to: call the point.

At the time, that meant that whatever I thought of the personality, style, instructor or uniform of the fighter I was judging, I needed to watch as objectively as possible and call the point if a legitimate technique hit a legitimate target.

It was a matter of fair play, and one which our world is sorely lacking.

For that reason, I make an effort to "call the point" when people I usually disagree with do the right thing or make a valid point.

So, in that spirit, I want to call a point in favor of (now former) Republican Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, who announced today that he would concede the election to his opponent Andy Beshear.

It goes without saying that I opposed Bevin's attacks on Medicaid and public education and pretty much everything else. But he probably could have dragged out the recount and pulled all kinds of strings to annul the results.,

He didn't. So, not that anyone cares what I think about Kentucky, I award him with an ippon (Japanese for full point).

Another basic rule of fair play I took from those days is this: when your opponent is no longer a threat to you or those you love, it's OK chill out.

November 13, 2019

A little good news for the coalfields

I'm a bit behind in blogging, but there does seem to be some good news for around 90,000 retired miners. Without congressional action, their benefits would end next year.

After blocking the bill for months, senate majority leader Mitch McConnell finally came out in support of long overdue legislation to ensure retirees get the benefits they were promised long ago. Both of West Virginia's senators have long supported the measure.

(Hmmm..I wonder if the results of Kentucky's race for governor had anything to do with that.)

Any, as I wrote here a while back, that's a good step. Then next step would be passage of the RECLAIM Act, which would draw on Abandoned Mine Lands (not land mines!) money to pay miners to undo some of the damage of mining. It would be another welcome boost to the economy of the coalfields as coal companies continue to go bankrupt.

November 07, 2019

Learning from Kentucky

The victory of Andy Beshear over Matt Bevin in the Kentucky governor's race has gotten nationwide attention. For good reasons. There are two key factors that seemed to tip the balance--and two kinds of constituencies that, if united in solidarity, could kick up all kinds of dust.

First, it almost never pays to antagonize public school teachers and support workers, as this Huffington Post item reminds us. I'm proud of the West Virginia education workers who helped inspire their Kentucky colleagues. I still love that picture of someone in Kentucky holding a sign that said, "Don't make us go West Virginia on you."

I hope West Virginia school workers in turn follow their example in showing up and voting next year.

But it wasn't just the teachers in Kentucky that made a difference. The other major factor was Medicaid expansion. Andy Beshear's father Steve expanded the program to low income working adults when he was governor. That decision brought coverage to 400,000 adult Kentuckians.
It also opened up the way to addiction treatment, as I mentioned in this 2017 post, which refers to
a 740 percent increase in substance abuse services since the expansion.

In addition to dissing teachers, Bevin also proposed draconian reporting requirements (disguised as work requirements) that would have cut off health care for tens of thousands of Kentuckians who gained from the expansion and taken millions of dollars out of the states economy.

As this article in The Hill notes, Andy Beshear specifically campaigned on defending the expansion and rescinding Bevin's attack on the program.

I don't think either the teachers and school support workers or the people who wanted to defend Medicaid could have done it alone. I'm not sure how consciously it happened, but together they did.

That kind of bridging solidarity takes some work. I've heard poor peoples' advocates say disparaging things about teachers and vice versa. It can amount to divide and rule from below, a luxury we can't afford now and one that never did us any good.

I think it comes down to this: over the last few decades wealth and power have been concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. We're not just talking about the richest one percent. It's more like the richest one-tenth of a percent.

The majority of the population, therefore, does not greatly benefit by the existing division of wealth and power and thus at least potentially could benefit from and support a more equitable arrangement, whatever differences there are between us.

Imagine what might be possible if we got really good at consciously reaching out in solidarity, joining forces and showing up for each other.

November 06, 2019

West Virginia's construction workers deserve better

In 2016, the West Virginia Legislature repealed the state’s prevailing wage law, which set pay standards for workers on public construction projects.

The intent of prevailing wage laws was to prevent these projects from turning into a race to the bottom, with out-of-state contractors profiting at the public expense by underbidding local businesses and importing low wage, low skill workers laboring under unsafe conditions.

The idea for that kind of legislation didn’t come from a bunch of labor radicals. Rather it was the brainchild of two Republican U.S. senators, James J. Davis of Pennsylvania and Robert L. Bacon of Long Island, New York.

In 1927, Bacon was angered to learn that an Alabama contractor won a bid to build a veteran’s hospital in his district, bringing in poorly treated workers to do the job. In his words, they were “herded onto this job, they were housed in shacks, they were paid a very low wage, and ... it seems to me that the federal government should not engage in construction work in any state and undermine the labor conditions and the labor wages paid in that state.”

In his view, setting locally based wage standards for public projects would ensure fairness and allow local and distant contractors to compete for bids on an equal basis.

Davis believed that the government had a responsibility to “comply with the local standards of wages and labor prevailing in the locality where the building construction is to take place.”

Their legislation, known as the Davis-Bacon Act, was passed in congress in 1931 and became the model for state prevailing wage laws, including the one that used to protect West Virginia’s workers and contractors.

Opponents of the legislation, who, as far as I can tell, are also opponents of working people generally, argued that repealing the legislation would save taxpayers money.

For example, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, argued at the time that “without prevailing wage, you could build five schools for the price of three.” He also claimed that the repeal would save the state $200-300 million annually.

If that really happened, the state would have a huge budget surplus. Instead, the governor has ordered $100 million in cuts due to a budget shortfall.

And the School Building Authority reported in 2017 that, while workers’ wages had gone down on school projects since repealing prevailing wage, “the overall cost of school construction does not reflect a reduction of overall construction costs on SBA projects at this time. At this time the SBA is not realizing an overall savings that would allow for the construction of ‘five new schools for the price of three,’ as some have previously claimed.”

What did go down were the inflation-adjusted wages of carpenters, electricians and operating engineers.

I find it particularly disturbing that repealing prevailing wage seems to have reduced the number of younger workers in apprenticeship programs. In 2016, there were over 5,400 active apprentices. By 2018, that number dropped to 4,400.

That’s 1,000 fewer people likely to earn a living wage with the kinds of benefits it takes to raise a family with a degree of economic stability — a real loss to many struggling communities.

Worse still is the decline in worker safety. On-the-job construction injuries increased by 26 percent since repeal, according to a study from Michael Kelsay, economics professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Frank Manzo, of the Midwest Economic Policy Institute. The study was commissioned by the Affiliated Construction Trades and the West Virginia State Building Trades Council.

According to the report, “Costs associated with worksite injuries and an overall decrease in worker productivity have offset any savings from lower labor costs, resulting in public school construction costs that are not statistically different since prevailing wage was repealed, even after adjusting for inflation.”

Then there’s the hit to local businesses. The shift from union to non-union contractors winning construction bids opens the door for a larger share of out-of-state firms “performing work on taxpayer-funded school projects, and taking their earnings back with them to their home states upon project completion.”

Any way you look at it, repealing our prevailing wage law was a bad deal for West Virginians. It’s time for the Legislature to undo the damage.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

November 05, 2019

At least this didn't happen in West Virginia

I'm so relieved that this happened in Florida and not here.

Commissioners in Citrus County Florida declined library funding for an electronic subscription to the New York Times because it was "fake news."

The vote was apparently unanimous, with member Chris Carnahan reportedly saying, “I will not be voting for this. I don’t want the New York Times in this county.”

I mean God forbid public libraries carry materials with diverse points of view. The results could be...democracy or something.

According to Forbes, the vote happened shortly before Trump ordered all federal agencies to cancel subscriptions to the Times and the Washington Post.

I just hope this doesn't give anybody ideas...

November 04, 2019

Urgent zombie fungus fly update

Sometimes I think natural selection, to the extent it can be personified, sniffs glue or ingests some other kind of trippy substance.

Witness this New York Times story about a fungus that takes over the body of a fly, turns it into some kind of zombie, makes it act erratically, kills it but causes it to land in an opportune place and in an opportune position, continues to grow inside the dead fly's body, and then shoots out spores "as if from microscopic cannons" to infect more flies.

How cool is that? I mean, unless you were a fly...

It should be noted, however, that zombie flies, unlike human zombies in movies, don't eat living flies, although would be pretty awesome.

If that isn't enough to get your week off to a good start, scroll down the Times article to access another article about a fungus that turns ants into zombies and causes their bodies to explode.

Holy Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, Batman! And zombies.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN WV, the Gazette-Mail's Phil Kabler had a great column on the myth of the "war on coal" and Trump's revival of the industry.

STOP THE PRESSES! It doesn't happen very often, but I agree with conservative commentator Hoppy Kercheval about the need for congress to keep its promise to retired coal miners.


November 01, 2019

Nag nag nag

Today is the last day to make a public comment on a bad policy that could take away free school breakfasts and lunches from a million schoolchildren in the US. Yes, I know I'm being a bore about this but indulge me for one more day.

Short background: the Trump administration wants to change eligibility for SNAP that will cut off over 3 million Americans from food assistance. That's bad enough. But this will also change eligibility for free school meals under the Community Eligibility Provision. To state the obvious, kids tend to learn and act better when they've had nutritious meals. This would make many of them be hungry at home AND at school.

Click here to comment.


October 30, 2019

Hate to be a bore, but urgent action needed by Nov. 1 to protect child nutrition

The WV Department of Education isn't known for sounding alarm bells about federal policy. So you KNOW things are bad when they release a statement like this:

Proposed SNAP Changes Could Negatively Affect West Virginia Students 
Charleston, W.Va. – Students in West Virginia could be at-risk for losing automatic free school meal eligibility under proposed changes to the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The proposed changes would adjust how students are directly certified to receive services meaning households across the state will lose automatic free or reduced school meals.
The West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services (DHHR) are working closely to quickly and completely analyze the potential impact to West Virginia students during the USDA’s current public comment period.
It is estimated that more than 120,000 West Virginia households could be negatively affected by eliminating broad-based categorical eligibility as a policy in which households may become categorically eligible for SNAP in relation to another benefit, such as non-cash temporary assistance for needy families (TANF). In addition to the direct impact to these households, funding to West Virginia schools could be negatively affected. If the number of directly certified students decreases and those students are not captured by another federal direct certification indicator, school districts may have to discontinue implementing the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Many schools could find that they no longer qualify for CEP or that it is no longer financially viable. Therefore, the proposed rule would take away automatic free meals from additional children who otherwise would not be considered as being directly impacted by changes to the categorical eligibility in SNAP.
West Virginia has benefited greatly from the election of the CEP, a federal meal pricing benefit available to areas of high need. All of West Virginia’s 55 counties have at least one school that qualifies for CEP. During the 2019-20 school year, 43 counties have implemented the CEP for all students meaning all students eat breakfast and lunch for free; 10 counties have elected CEP partially, meaning some schools qualify, while other schools in the county do not; and two counties operate under the traditional method of free and reduced price meal applications throughout the county. Community eligibility uses the number of children directly certified for free school meals, primarily due to participation in SNAP, to determine if a school or district is eligible to implement CEP. The analysis of the proposed changes fails to consider the impacts on community eligibility provision.
“The proposed rule changes are concerning with nearly 1 million individuals estimated to be affected nationally,” said Amanda Harrison, Executive Director of the WVDE Office of Child Nutrition. “We know that hungry children do not perform at their best and when we meet the nutritional needs of our students, student achievement increases.”
The WVDE intends to submit comments to the USDA outlining the impact on Mountain State students and will make those comments public. The WVDE’s Office of Child Nutrition is also exploring other mechanisms or indicators that are in place to ensure that our neediest and most vulnerable students are directly certified for school meals.
If you haven't already, please click here to make your comments. The deadline is Nov. 1.

October 29, 2019

Urgent: act now to fight hunger in our schools

Short version: please act now to protect free breakfasts and lunches for tens of thousands of WV school children. You can click here to make comments to the USDA opposing rule changes to eligibility that could deny school food not only to thousands of individual students but whole schools and counties.

The deadline to make comments is Nov. 1, so this is urgent.

As an example, I submitted something like this, but you could keep it simple with just a sentence or two.

West Virginia has become a leader in child nutrition thanks to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which expands free breakfasts and lunches to all students in schools where 40 percent or more of students are directly certified as being low income. The changes to SNAP eligibility proposed by the Trump administration would also impact CEP and could take away meals for one million individual students, as well as many entire schools and counties. Research has shown that universal access to school food has many benefits, including improved academic performance for poor and non-poor students, removing stigma, increasing participation in nutritious food programs, reducing hunger, supporting working parents and reducing paperwork for schools. The proposed changes should be rejected.
For background, here's a pretty scary news release from the WV Department of Education about the dangers this rule change poses for WV schools, parents and students. And not just WV but the whole country.

Please act quickly and spread the word. Thanks!

October 25, 2019

Here we go again

(The "war on Christmas" hissy fit raised its head in Charleston recently. This prompted me to dust off an op-ed that I wrote on this way back in 2005 and bring it up...or date. This one ran in the Gazette-Mail this week.)

I usually enjoy holiday customs and rituals, especially those sanctioned by age and tradition.

Some of the newer ones, however, get on my last nerve. One such is the recent annual ritual of “war on Christmas” outrage, a feeding frenzy of pretended persecution and pseudo-martyrdom heralded not by the singing of angels but by ... some other kind of sound.

The goal is apparently to summon the faithful to a hissy fit over things like saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This apparently is seen to be the latter-day equivalent of being fed to the lions in the Roman coliseum.

As a practicing, although not entirely successful, Christian who celebrates Christmas, this seems bizarre to me. I don’t care how I’m greeted at that season, having learned as a child that it’s rude to get angry when someone wishes you well, however they express it.

But there is more to this than bad manners.

At a moral level, it’s pretty perverse when a person claiming to be a follower of Jesus walks into a big-box store containing products made by women and children in miserable sweatshops, is waited on by a person who doesn’t earn a living wage or have health insurance or vacation or paid sick days, and manages to get mad only if the worker says something other than “Merry Christmas.”

This is the kind of thing the real Jesus (remember him?) called “straining at gnats and swallowing camels.” In fact, I don’t think any of the Gospels quote Jesus as saying “Thou shalt get royally ticked off if the occasion of my birth is not marked by everyone exactly according to your liking.”

Maybe I missed that part.

At a religious level, there is something pretty blasphemous about thinking that the current annual orgy of materialism, greed, commercialism and over-consumption in a world where billions of people are desperately poor has a whole lot to do with the actual person or birth of Jesus.

As I recall, when Jesus himself was exposed to the commercialization of sacred things in the temple, he started overturning tables and raising a ruckus.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was probably onto something when he said that true impiety consisted of “attributing to the gods the ideas of the crowd.”

At a semantic level, there also seems to be some confusion about the definition of persecution. Jesus was literally persecuted to death. When he warned his followers to expect the same and told them to bless and pray for their persecutors, he probably didn’t have the greeting “happy holidays” or the name of a parade in mind.

Maybe a real example would help clear things up. In 1980, three American nuns and a church worker went to El Salvador to stand with oppressed people. They did this because they took Jesus’ teachings about justice for the poor seriously.

They were kidnapped by the Salvadoran National Guard and were raped, tortured, shot and buried in an unmarked grave precisely for being faithful to the Gospel.

That was persecution.

Equating generic holiday expressions with persecution is an insult to thousands of authentic Christian martyrs, from the stoning of Stephen in the Book of Acts to the present day.

At the historical level, no one knows when Jesus was born, although most scholars would put their money on any date but Dec. 25.

The earliest church didn’t mark Christmas. In fact, in the New Testament epistle to the Galatians, Paul criticizes that congregation for observing “days, months, seasons, and years.”

By the year 200, the church father Clement of Alexandria found that the people who tried to mark the exact day were “overly curious.” Early dates from around that period set the birth in the spring or early summer.

The Dec. 25 date didn’t catch on in the Western church until the 4th century of the Christian era. This time of year was already celebrated in pagan customs honoring Saturn, Mithras, and the return of the sun after the winter solstice.

A lot of other Christmas customs, including trees, Yule logs, mistletoe and the exchange of gifts were adapted from Mediterranean, Germanic or Celtic paganism. In other words, there are a lot of reasons for the things people do that season.

Still, I think the eventual decision of the ancient church to fill the calendar with sacred days and seasons marking key events in the life of Jesus, the apostles and the saints was a wise one, even if the days don’t match up exactly or literally.

Maybe one reason some people unfamiliar with that tradition get so wired about Christmas is that they have an impoverished sense of the sacred year. Making do just on Christmas and Easter from this perspective is kind of like trying to play cards with just two in the deck.

When I buy gas on Jan. 1, for example, I don’t get worked up if the person says “Happy New Year” instead of “Happy Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord.” I don’t tell the people I’m taking my business elsewhere if they don’t say “Happy Epiphany” on Jan. 6.

It’s even OK if folks don’t wish me a happy Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24 or a pleasant Feast of St. James the Greater on July 25.

Meanwhile, I’m already starting my wish list for next Christmas. I’m asking St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myra who somehow got morphed into Santa Claus, to help the war-on-Christmas crew find something better to do next holiday season.

Maybe something Jesusy for a change.

October 18, 2019

Easy action to help feed kids

In yesterday's post, I wrote about how SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) rule changes proposed by the Trump administration could take away food assistance from one million school children.

Here's how: by changing eligibility for one, the proposed rule would change it for the other.

The USDA apparently realizes at some level that some folks out there actually want kids to eat, so they've reopened the public comment period. It will be open from Oct. 18 to Nov. 1.

Here's a link to make comments:

And here are some talking points.

I couldn't swear to this, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if those who make comments in defense of feeding kids will be reborn in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, where they can work to attain enlightenment under the most favorable conditions.

October 17, 2019

If you care about kids, get ready for another school food fight

It's on again. I've written before about threats to food security from the Trump administration, most recently here. It turns out that things are worse than I thought.

For review, Prince Joffrey's President Trump's administration proposed changes in eligibility for the SNAP program that could take away food assistance from over 3 million Americans and eligibility for free school meals to 500,000 kids. Turns out the latter figure is more like a million.

So they'll be hungry at home AND at school. Nice...

In fact, the USDA is soon going to reopen a public comment period on this for a two week period. Details to come.

Here's the latest word from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC):

WASHINGTON, October 17, 2019 — A surprise release of data that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should have disclosed earlier underscores the deep harm of its proposed rule to limit access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): eliminating food assistance for 3.1 million people and jeopardizing free school meals for nearly 1 million children.
Children who live in households that receive SNAP benefits are directly certified (automatically eligible) to receive free school breakfast and lunch. While the initial estimate showed that the rule could jeopardize more than 500,000 children’s access to free school meals, the new USDA analysis states that as many as 982,000 children could be impacted, with 497,000 children moving from free to reduced-price meals, and 40,000 completely losing eligibility for both free and reduced-price school meals. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) noted in a statement, “Even for those who remain eligible, forcing low-income families to navigate the burdensome paperwork will inevitably lead to eligible children losing access to a critical source of daily nutrition.”
If this rule is enacted, children will be hungry at home and school. Since childhood hunger is linked to academic struggles, difficulties focusing and concentrating, mental health disorders, and increased behavioral referrals, many schools would struggle to meet the educational, health, and mental health needs of the students who lose SNAP benefits and as a result, access to free school meals.
The administration will reopen the public comment period for 14 days. Once it is reopened, FRAC will have a comment platform on its website where people can submit comments opposing this deeply flawed proposal. 
I'll send word out when we know more, but here's some ammo for your comments: there's a new scientific study that shows free school meals (surprise) improve academic performance. Interestingly, this is true of both non-poor and poor kids.

Gird up thy loins for battle once again...

October 16, 2019

Remembering John Brown's raid

Today marks one of the hinges of American history, one that occurred in what is now West Virginia.

On the evening of Oct. 16, 1859, 160 years ago, abolitionist John Brown and 18 armed followers, black and white, left their hideout at a farm in Maryland to raid the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry. Three were left behind as a rear guard.

Brown believed the raid would spark a slave rebellion that would eventually spread throughout the South.

He was a textbook case of what 19th Century psychology would call monomania, meaning the extreme preoccupation of a person with one overriding idea.

Think Captain Ahab, in Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” who was obsessed with the desire to avenge himself on the White Whale. Brown’s White Whale was slavery.

Born in 1800 to an anti-slavery family, he crisscrossed the country on various business ventures, all of which failed. He married twice and fathered 20 children, several of whom would be sacrificed for his cause.

His determination to fight slavery to the death crystalized in 1837 with the murder by a mob in Illinois of Elijah Lovejoy, who published an anti-slavery paper.

At a meeting discussing Lovejoy’s murder at a church in Hudson, Ohio, Brown stood up and declared, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

When the controversy over slavery’s future in the Western territories grew violent, Brown and his allies, including his sons, joined the fight. His methods could be excessive. One night, in May 1856, Brown and his crew raided the homes of five men associated with the local pro-slavery movement and hacked them to death with swords.

This was just one episode in the violence that gave the place the name of “Bleeding Kansas,” with much of the bleeding done by antislavery settlers.

Brown believed that the mountains of what is now our Eastern Panhandle would be the perfect place to strike a fatal blow against slavery.

He said that, “These mountains are the basis of my plan ... God has given the strength of the hills to freedom; they were placed here for emancipation of the negro race; they are full of natural forts, where one man for defense will be equal to one hundred for attack; they are full also of good hiding-places, where large numbers of brave men could be concealed, baffle and elude pursuit for a long time.”

However, when it came time for the actual attack on Harpers Ferry, everything that could have gone wrong for Brown and his party did. Ten of his men died in the raid, along with six others, including Hayward Shepherd, an African-American baggage handler for the railroad. Most of Brown’s party not killed in the raid were captured by soldiers led by future Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart. They were later hanged.

Included in the raiding party were three free African-Americans: Anthony Copeland, Lewis Leary and Osborn Perry Anderson. Anderson was the only one to survive the ordeal. He would later join the Union Army during the Civil War. Dangerfield Newby was a former slave, while Shields Green had escaped slavery in South Carolina.

Newby’s case was particularly tragic. His wife, Harriet, and children were still enslaved and in danger of being sold south. In a letter that year, she wrote, “I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you do not get me some body else will.”

Newby joined Brown’s group after attempts to buy his family’s freedom failed. He was shot. His body was mutilated by locals. His family was sold shortly thereafter.

Green, nicknamed “Emperor,” met Brown in the company of Frederick Douglass. While Douglass declined to join the venture, Green said, “I believe I’ll go with the old man.”

Douglass would later say that Green “was not one to shrink from hardships or dangers. He was a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken; but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character.”

Green was captured and convicted but didn’t say a word during his trial. On the day of Brown’s hanging, Green sent word to Brown that he didn’t regret his fate and was glad to have fought with him. Green himself was hanged shortly after.

Brown told the court that, if he had done the same things to help the wealthy and powerful, he would have been called a hero. Because he chose to act on behalf of the “despised poor,” he faced death. He said, “if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”

The most fascinating thing to me about Brown is that he failed at everything but succeeded in his main goal of pushing the controversy over slavery to the point of no return, like the soldier in the Bob Dylan song who “won the war after losing every battle.”

Over the years, Brown has been called a martyr, a madman, a terrorist and more. I think of him as some kind of meteor forged by God or fate or chance, a monkey wrench destined to sabotage the machinery of slavery.

On this day, as the great African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote, “Perhaps you will remember John Brown.”

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

October 07, 2019

Don't take food away from kids

Over the last few years, West Virginia has made major progress in school-based child nutrition, thanks to the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, West Virginia’s 2013 Feed to Achieve Act and the wise decisions of nearly all county school boards.

The main reason for that is something called the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows school boards to provide free meals to all students in schools where 40 percent or more of students are certified as being low income. Nearly every county (with the notable exception of Putnam) participates in the program in some or all schools.

It’s a winner all around. It improves nutrition, learning and discipline; gives working parents a break; and cuts down on paperwork and other costs for schools.

Child nutrition is one of the few areas where West Virginia is something of a national leader. According to the Food Research and Action Center, West Virginia led the nation in school breakfast participation for the fifth consecutive year.

When the ranking was announced in February, state schools Superintendent Steven Payne said, “We know that hungry children cannot learn and when we meet the nutritional needs of our students, student achievement increases and classroom disruptions decrease ... I am proud of the work our schools do every day to meet the needs of their students.”

He’s not making that up. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research shows that access to nutritional meals improves learning.

Unfortunately, some of that progress could be undone due to collateral damage caused by the Trump administration’s efforts to change eligibility for SNAP (formerly food stamp) food assistance, a move that could cut over 3 million Americans off that program. The proposed rule change is an end run around the will of Congress, which declined to enact such measures when the massive Farm Bill was reauthorized in 2018.

The deadline for public comments on the proposed eligibility changes ended in late September. According to The New York Times, the USDA got buried by over 75,000 comments, the vast majority of which opposed the changes. That number included 70 comments from mayors, 17 from governors and at least three from state congressional delegations.

So what does SNAP have to do with feeding kids in school? It works like this: Changing eligibility for SNAP will also change it for kids who receive free school breakfasts and lunches. FRAC estimates that these changes, if enacted, would cause 500,000 kids to lose eligibility.

In other words, the rule change would cut kids — and some entire schools — off by changing the way kids are certified.

I think that American Federation of Teachers (AFT)President Randi Weingarten nailed it when she said, “In the richest country in the world, no child should be denied access to lunch at school because of their parents’ income level or a cruel attempt by the Trump administration to cut food benefit programs for needy kids.”

She also said, “Hungry children cannot focus on learning. Instead of shaming them, we should be investing in programs that support them and help them feel safe and welcome at school: nutrition programs that promote healthy habits and nurture families facing food scarcity, affordable breakfast and lunch for any kid who needs it, and other community and school supports that build students up, not tear them down.”

(This ran as an op-ed in yesterday's Charleston Gazette-Mail. It may bear an eerie familiarity to an earlier post.)

October 01, 2019

Surprise, surprise

Golly, who could have seen this coming? After the city of Charleston WV suspended its needle exchange program in March 2018, cases up hepatitis C shot up from 458 in 2017 to 1114 in 2018.
The program was suspended under pressure from then mayor Danny Jones and then police chief Steve Cooper.

Gazette-Mail reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely did the math, and it looks like that means a new case every 8 hours. While most cases are due to needle sharing, the outbreak isn't likely to remain confined to people using intravenous drugs.

This is what happens when political interference  trumps evidence-based public health practices.

September 30, 2019

Taking food from kids

I'd like to send a big "Thank You!" to everyone who submitted public comments to the US Department of Agriculture opposing the Trump administration's efforts to take away SNAP food assistance to over 3 million Americans. The deadline for submitting public comments ended Sept. 23.

(One might think the administration would be otherwise occupied with phone calls to foreign governments or  lawyers or late night tweeting...)

According to the New York Times, the USDA got over 75,000 comments, the vast majority of which opposed the changes. That number included 70 comments from mayors, 17 from governors and at least three from state congressional delegations.

The mean-spirited rule change is an end run around the will of Congress, which declined to enact such measures when the massive Farm Bill was reauthorized in 2018.

Here's another reason why the change is bad, not that any more are needed: by changing eligibility requirements for SNAP, this will also mean changing them for kids who receive free school breakfasts and lunches, which could mean that 500,000 kids lose eligibility.

Over the last few years, West Virginia has made major progress in school-based child nutrition, thanks to the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and West Virginia's 2013 Feed to Achieve Act. The main reason for that is something called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows school boards to provide free meals to all students in schools where 40 percent or more of students are certified as being low income.

This is one of the few areas where West Virginia is something of a national leader. In a good way. According to the Food Research and Action Center, West Virginia led the nation in school breakfast participation for the fifth consecutive year.

When the ranking was announced in February, state school superintendent Stephen Payne said that, “We know that hungry children cannot learn and when we meet the nutritional needs of our students, student achievement increases and classroom disruptions decrease. I am proud of the work our schools do every day to meet the needs of their students.”

He's not making that up. According to the Centers for Disease Control, research shows that access to nutritional meals improves learning.

The Trump rule change would cut kids--and some entire schools--off by changing the way kids are certified.

I think that American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten nailed it when she said that "In the richest country in the world, no child should be denied access to lunch at school because of their parents' income level or a cruel attempt by the Trump administration to cut food benefit programs for needy kids.”

She also said that  "Hungry children cannot focus on learning. Instead of shaming them, we should be investing in programs that support them and help them feel safe and welcome at school: nutrition programs that promote healthy habits and nurture families facing food scarcity, affordable breakfast and lunch for any kid who needs it, and other community and school supports that build students up, not tear them down.”

September 26, 2019

Is it starting?

No, I'm not talking about the impeachment of a certain elected official, although that would be fine with me. I'm asking whether it might be time to get the US to get serious about climate change.

I recently picked up a book of poems by Mary Oliver and opened it randomly. The first line that struck my eyes had this to say:

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold."
The rest of the poem is here. I'm right there with her, although cold part doesn't sound too bad at the moment.

I really hope that the US is approaching a sea change when it comes to climate action. There were actions around the country last week. West Virginians are planning an awareness event tonight. A recent poll shows that more Americans are finally starting to view the issue as a crisis.

Earlier this week, there was an event I'd never have expected: Robert Hanshaw, the Republican Speaker of the WV House of Delegates, and Evan Hansen, a Democratic delegate who is a strong environmental advocates spoke to a group of students about climate change. As in it being real and all.

The Hansen part wasn't a surprise, but the Hanshaw part was, given his ties to the gas industry and the power of the extractive energy lobby in WV, especially but not exclusively with Republicans.

(In fairness, I've seen decades of Democrats grovel before the extractive overlords as well.)

I'm not about to give way to a fit of uncharacteristic optimism, but I think the way may be opening. It's probably already too late to undo some serious damage even if we started with a blank slate today. But I think we can still do some harm reduction if we generate and demonstrate the political will.

The alternative is disaster.

September 23, 2019

One year ago today

One year ago today, I got in a car in Huttonsville WV after spending the weekend with West Virginia Quakers, drove to Baltimore and took off to France to start walking the Camino de Santiago Compostela over the Pyrenees and across Spain to Santiago, Finisterre, and Muxia, and then back to Santiago.

It was 38 consecutive days of walking, pain, beauty, pain, reflection, conversation, solitude and all that. And lots of cafe con leche, good food, beer, wine and orujo (Spanish hooch).

(Not to mention fantasizing about about a death match with the sadist who designed my backpack...)

Something like 640 miles by the time it was over, with meanderings and getting lost a time or two, for an average of 17 miles per day.

I miss the open road.

September 18, 2019

Need a karmic boost? Help fight hunger

In an earlier post, I wrote about the Trump administration's proposal to mess with the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). These changes, if enacted, would cut off food assistance from over 3 million Americans and 25,000 West Virginians.

The deadline to submit public comments on why this is a bad idea is this coming Monday, Sept. 23.

Here's a link to the USDA comment page.

Here's a link to tons of information about why this is a bad idea.

And here's a great story from today's Charleston Gazette-Mail about what this means for West Virginia.

I've been given to understand that making a public comment against these measures will guarantee a fortunate rebirth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, where the commentor can work towards Supreme Enlightenment under the most favorable conditions.

September 11, 2019

Poll shows strong support for WV teachers

I don't know if WV legislators are paying attention (or if some of them listen to anything but out of state dark money), but a new poll shows solid support for public schools and teachers, up to and including another strike.

Sixty two percent support higher salaries for teachers. That includes 75 percent of self-described liberals, 60 percent of moderates and 57 percent of conservatives.

The most pleasant surprise for me was that 69 percent of those surveyed would support teachers if they went on another strike. And, despite the an aggressive anti-labor drive, teachers and school support workers unions enjoy the support of 55 percent.

This is no surprise, but the poll reveals little support for charter schools, with 40 percent opposing, 25 percent with no opinion, and only 35 percent supporting them.

It's nice to know that even in this toxic political climate, there's still support for workers, their organizations and their right to strike.

September 05, 2019

Astroturf in action

For the last several years, people here have been trying to fight off some major assaults on programs that benefit low income people, such as SNAP (formerly food stamps) and Medicaid.  These initiatives didn't bubble off from below. Rather, they've been driven by dark money, and specifically the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA).

This article from the Center for Public Integrity shines some light on dark money, including their efforts to slam poor people in West Virginia. Wherever you are in the US, there are probably similar things going on.

August 30, 2019

Thoughts for Labor Day

The labor movement has frequently been written off as dead in recent decades. I’ve never believed it, although there have been times when I felt like checking for a pulse.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve been thrilled to see a glorious revival, beginning with the 2018 strike by West Virginia teachers and school support workers, a statewide victorious and nonviolent uprising that:

*brought substantial pay increases to as many as 78,000 teachers, school support workers and public employees;

*resulted in at least temporary improvements in coverage by Public Employees Insurance Agency;

*killed several bad potential pieces of legislation;showed the world what’s best in West Virginia; and

*set an inspiring example for teachers and workers around the country, which helped spark a nationwide wave of mostly successful strikes.

Both AFSC programs in West Virginia (the Appalachian Center for Equality and the WV Economic Justice Project) tried to be supportive of the movement, as well as ongoing struggles to oppose efforts to privatize public education.

My favorite image from that period was a photo of a Kentucky teacher holding a sign that said, “Don’t make us go West Virginia on you.”

To celebrate this Labor Day, here are some quotes to ponder from diverse voices about a movement that has frequently been the subject of premature obituaries:

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” —Abraham Lincoln

“The American people have this to learn: that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither person nor property is safe.” —Frederick Douglass

"Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission of emancipating the workers of the world from the thralldom of the ages is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.” —Eugene Victor Debs, labor leader and socialist

“When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run/there can be no greater power anywhere beneath the sun/yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one/but the union makes us strong,” —Ralph Chaplin, Industrial Workers of the World organizer and author of “Solidarity Forever,” the international anthem of the labor movement, which was inspired by a 1912-13 West Virginia coal miners’ strike

“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” —Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor

“’The first thing is to raise hell,’ says I. ‘That’s always the first thing to do when you’re faced with an injustice and you feel powerless. That’s what I do in my fight for the working class.’” —Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, an Irish-born American labor organizer and hell raiser

“Justice is never given; it is exacted, and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship.” —A. Philip Randolph, African-American socialist and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union

 “The labor movement was the principal force that transforme­d misery and despair into hope and progress.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

“What we would like to do is change the world ... by crying unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that it’s ever widening circle will reach around the world.” —Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement

From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.” —Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers union

“The freedom of association means that people can come together in organization to fight for solutions to the problems they confront in their communities. The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action. It is this right that sustains and nurtures our democracy today. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the equality movement for our LGBT brothers and sisters are all manifestations of these rights.” —Dolores Huerta, leader of the United Farm Workers union

“Yes, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that Dr. King, precisely at the moment of his assassination, was re-conceptualizing the civil rights movement and moving toward a sort of coalitional relationship with the trade union movement.” —Angela Davis, African-American scholar and freedom fighter

I’ll give the last word to West Virginia native Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers union:

"The labor movement is about changing society. What good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week's vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can't swim in it and your kids can't play in it? And what good is another hundred-dollar pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke in a war?"

Happy Labor Day!

(This first appeared as an AFSC Labor Day blog post.)

August 29, 2019

Please don't call it a "no-brainer"!

I'm not a superstitious person, aside from taking a few prudent precautions. Like throwing spilled salt over my left shoulder. And crossing myself when a black cat crosses my path. And not rocking an empty chair. Then there's the one about sitting down before you leave if you go back into the house because you forgot something. And knocking on wood. And the thing about pennies found on the ground being good luck if they're heads up.

But that's it.

But, as I've observed here more than once, I will admit to one sure bringer of bad luck: using the term "no-brainer" to describe a desirable public policy option for West Virginia. In my experience, those are the hardest things to get done.

That's why I felt like engaging in any number of rituals to undo the potential damage when an otherwise right on editorial in the Gazette-Mail used that dreaded expression to talk about a common sense child nutrition bill.

The bill in question is House Bill 162, one of the more (or only?) rational things to come out of the special session of the legislature this summer on "education betterment." It would basically require counties to assess summer and out of school food programs for children and report this to the Office of Child Nutrition.

This simple bill would make it easier for people to find needed assistance and also possibly nudge some counties into doing more to take up the slack.

It passed the house unanimously, but didn't make it through the senate. Under the weird rules of this stage of  the special session, which is dormant at the moment, the senate could reconvene to take up bills that have passed the house but no new items.

Reconvening to pass this little bill would be...perhaps something that does not require an undue amount of cerebral agitation.

Just don't use the fatal words!

August 26, 2019

Saving lives

Back in 2013, thousands of West Virginians came together to urge then Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to expand Medicaid coverage to low income working adults under the Affordable Care Act.

He did.

(In retrospect, there was a good chance he would have done it anyway without all the shouting, but nobody wanted to leave that to chance.)

At the time, many advocates argued that doing so would save lives. Or, conversely, that failing to do so would cause unnecessary deaths.

The original federal legislation mandated expansion nationwide, but a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision made this a state option. That court decision, in effect, would prove to be a death sentence for thousands of Americans.

After five years of Medicaid expansion, researchers did the math, comparing mortality rates for low income “near elderly” Americans aged 55 to 64 in states that did and did not expand Medicaid. That demographic is more likely to benefit from coverage — and to suffer without it — than younger and presumably healthier Americans and elderly people eligible for Medicare.

The results, published by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER), found a .13 percentage point reduction in mortality for states that expanded Medicaid compared with those that did not.

According to the researchers, “The effect is driven by a reduction in disease-related deaths and grows over time.”

Specifically, 15,600 people died between 2014 and 2017 because their state didn’t expand Medicaid. That’s about five times the death toll from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

If some other country would have caused that many American deaths, we would have gone to war.

In West Virginia, the news was better. Over the same period, the number of uninsured West Virginians fell by 56 percent. According to the NBER research, the expansion saved 87 lives per year in the Mountain State. That would be 435 lives over the five years the expansion has been in place.

And that’s just for the “near elderly.” The overall numbers would be higher.

It’s important to remember the life-saving facts about Medicaid expansion, which now covers over 155,000 West Virginians.

The program is under attack both by a federal lawsuit, supported by the state’s attorney general, and by potential state legislation that would impose work reporting requirements which could kick 38,000 to 71,000 out of coverage.

The research shows that this is literally a matter of life and death.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

August 21, 2019

Slacker goats

I never thought that I had much in common with the current occupant of the White House. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that the president is a fellow goat herder...sort of.

According to the Huffington Post, Prince Joffrey  President Trump owns eight goats and 113 acres of hay at one of his golf courses in New Jersey. Unlike my slacker goats, however, his apparently save him $88,000 a year in property taxes.

Maybe I should get into kangaroos.

August 16, 2019

The bad kind of ACE

If you’re playing poker, a handful of aces can be a good thing. If you’re growing up, not so much, especially if the aces stand for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

That kind of ACE was the accidental discovery of Dr. Vincent Felitti, who ran a weight-loss clinic in California for the health care giant Kaiser Permanente in the 1980s.

A star of the program was a woman who initially weighed 408 pounds. She lost 276 pounds in less than a year.

Then, something happened. In less than a month, she put nearly 40 pounds back on.

Felitti questioned her about what happened. It came out that, after losing the weight, she was sexually propositioned by an older, married co-worker. While Felitti acknowledged that must have been disturbing, he thought the dramatic weight gain was an extreme response.

Then, she revealed that she had been repeatedly sexually abused by a family member starting at age 10. One could see the weight gain as a kind of protection, conscious or otherwise, from unwanted advances.

Felitti checked with other patients who quit the program and found that a majority reported childhood sexual abuse.

Sensing a connection between childhood experiences and adult outcomes, he partnered with Robert Anda, of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to survey more than 17,000 adults in the Kaiser system about the extent and effects of childhood trauma, including various kinds of abuse and family disfunction.

The main finding was that these were “vastly more common than recognized or acknowledged” and that they “have a powerful relation to adult health a half-century later.”

This led to the development of a widely-used ACEs test, which identifies whether people experienced one or more of the following: physical abuse by a parent, sexual abuse by anyone, emotional abuse in the household, physical neglect, emotional neglect, loss of a parent (from death, divorce or separation), growing up in a household with an alcoholic or person with substance-use disorder, living with a family member with mental illness, and the incarceration of a household member.

Add up the “yeses” to these and you’ll have an ACEs score.

Research suggests that, while trauma isn’t destiny, a high incidence of ACEs is associated with a much higher risk for behavioral health issues, such as physical inactivity, smoking, alcoholism, drug use and missed work, not to mention things like incarceration.

High ACE scores also increase risk for severe obesity, diabetes, suicide attempts, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, cancer, strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and even physical injuries, like broken bones.

According to the CDC, people with an ACEs score of six or more die 20 years earlier, on average, than those with no ACEs.

Studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of Americans have an ACE score of at least one, and 38 percent have scores higher than one. Around 12.5 percent have ACE scores of four or more. The most common ACEs were physical abuse (28 percent), substance abuse (27 percent) and the absence of a parent (23 percent).

It’s hard to get an exact handle on the economic toll of ACEs, but the annual costs associated with symptoms are in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, many children dealing with the effects of trauma are misdiagnosed as having conditions such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or other disorders. Or simply as being “bad.”

Research suggests that a better question to ask in such cases is “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?”

What does this mean for West Virginia? In short, a lot.

A 2014 survey suggests that at least 55.8 percent of Mountain State residents had at least one such experience, and 13.8 percent experienced four or more. That’s likely an underestimate, because of slightly different methodologies.

Consider the connection between ACEs and the state’s opioid problem. According to the WV ACEs Coalition,

“A 2016 study found that individuals who reported 5 or more ACEs were 3x more likely to misuse prescription pain medication and five times more likely to engage in injection drug use. Another study found that over 80% of the patients seeking treatment for opioid addiction had at least one form of childhood trauma, with almost two-thirds reporting having witnessed violence in childhood. Among the different forms of ACEs, sexual abuse and parental separation (for women) and physical and emotional abuse (for men) appear to be particularly highly correlated with opioid abuse.”

Follow-up research by Felitti and Anda suggests that boys with six or more ACEs were 46 time more likely to become intravenous drug users as adults than those with none.

That’s on the front end. It gets scarier if we think about the future effects of the trauma experienced by children dealing with the crisis today.

What can we do about it?

First, it’s time to recognize that punishing trauma doesn’t work, neither for children nor adults.

At the individual level, positive connections with at least one adult contribute to resiliency. So do things like physical activity and developing mindfulness skills.

At the larger level, protective factors include things like helping parents manage stress, building social connections, increasing knowledge of child development and parenting skills, concrete support for families in times of need and promoting positive interactions between children and adults. At the systemic level, obvious steps would be ending poverty, reducing inequality and addressing racial disparities.

We can’t change the past, but the future is unwritten.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

August 08, 2019

Four things to know about Medicaid expansion in West Virginia

Not sure how clear this infograph from the WV Center on Budget and Policy will show up on your screen, but here are four takeaways:

*As of now, over 155,000 West Virginians are covered by the expansion.These are overwhelmingly adults from working families.

*38,00 to 71,000 of these could lose coverage if the state enacts medicaid reporting requirements.

*The state experienced a 56 percent drop in the uninsured rate between 2013 and 2017. The expansion went into effect in 2014.

*Most interesting is a study of mortality rates in states that expanded Medicaid versus those that didn't. It suggests that 435 non-elderly lives were saved in the state as a result of the expansion.

This was a huge win for human rights and social justice, the biggest in my lifetime. We need to be ready to fight to keep it.