May 24, 2019

Happy Dylan Day!

I usually miss it, but not this time. Today, May 24, is Bob Dylan's birthday. His 78th to be precise. I wish him many more and want to say thanks once again to the guy who provided the soundtrack of my life (although that can sometimes a downer, as any true Dylan fan knows).

The Dylan songs that resonate most with me aren't the early idealistic ones. I tend to prefer the darker cynical ones, although I have a rotating list of favorites.

At the moment, my two favorite Dylan songs are Baby Let Me Follow You Down (just learned the guitar chords) and Million Dollar Bash. For some reason, this line from the latter cracks me up:

"I've been hittin' it too hard/my stones won't take."

I have no idea what it means but it sounds cool.

Thanks, Bob!

May 23, 2019

Top of a good list

Most of the time West Virginia is at the bottom of the good lists and the top of the bad ones. It's always nice when that pattern reverses itself.

That's actually happened several times:

*we're a national leader in insuring children via CHIP and Medicaid;

*we're the national leader in school breakfast participation and school food generally;

*thanks to Medicaid expansion, in 2016, we had the largest drop in the number of the uninsured.

Here's the latest positive news from the Georgetown Center for Children and Families: while maternal mortality has gone up in the US as a whole (alone among advanced capitalist nations), maternal and infant help has improved considerably here in recent years the number of uninsured women of childbearing age has dropped by more than two-thirds here.

The main reason? No surprise, it's Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. In fact, the report found that "States that have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act saw a 50 percent greater reduction in infant mortality than non-expansion states."

It's possible that WV's numbers could even further improve due to the recent decision of the legislature to extend Medicaid coverage for pregnant women to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, as noted here.

All of which is one more reason to protect Medicaid expansion.

May 22, 2019

Calling all politicians who pretend to care about miners: prove it

Politicians around the country have shed a lot of crocodile tears for coal miners and their families in recent years. I suspect that many of these have been theatrical in nature.

Now there are a couple of chances to find out who’s for real and who isn’t. Two bills have been introduced in Congress that could make a real difference for coalfield communities.

One is Senate Bill 27, the American Miners Act of 2019, introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and supported by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

It’s basically about keeping promises.

The bill would modify the federal Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act of 1977 to allow funds to be transferred to the 1974 United Mine Workers Pension Plan, which was originally created by President Harry Truman in 1946 to ensure health and pension benefits to the miners who put themselves at risk for decades to build the country’s industrial might and raise the standard of living. It would impose no new costs to taxpayers.

The UMWA pension fund has taken hits over the years. One of these was the most recent recession, which hit hard around 10 years ago. Even worse has been the steady stream of corporate bankruptcies.

(Sad to say but, these days, it seems like it’s easier for coal companies to dodge paying promised benefits than it is for an ordinary worker to get relief from student loan debt.)

According to Manchin, “In the past two years, contributions into the plan have dropped by more than $100 million, leaving less than $25 million per year still coming into it. The average pension is $600 per month, modest by most standards, but still critical to the 87,000 beneficiaries who depend on it.”

Capito told WV MetroNews: “These retirees are not getting rich on their pension plans and they are not taking lavish expenditures. Without this monthly benefit, many of them would be living on the edge of poverty, if they are not already.”

The bill would also prop up funding for black lung benefits for miners and their families by extending the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund tax for 10 years. This step is urgently needed because the problem is getting worse.

According to a 2018 NPR news report, “One in five working coal miners in central Appalachia who have worked at least 25 years now suffer from the coal miners’ disease black lung ... . It’s the highest rate in a quarter-century and indicates that the disease continues to afflict more miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.”

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that black lung has killed more than 76,000 people since 1968. Unfortunately, we can only expect those numbers to increase in the future. In 2018, more than 25,000 miners and dependents received benefits from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

Another bipartisan measure that could benefit coalfield communities is the RECLAIM Act (House Resolution 2156), which stands for “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More.”

RECLAIM would release money from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund to help communities clean up some of the damage caused by mining—and its decline. It could also help put former miners and other dislocated workers back to work.

Both of West Virginia’s senators have supported the principles of the RECLAIM Act. A version of the bill cleared the House Natural Resources Committee on May 1.

These bills obviously aren’t a total fix to undo the harm done to workers, communities and environments over the last 100 or so years, but they would be steps in the right direction. And a promise is a promise.

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

May 21, 2019

New law opens SNAP eligibility to people with drug felonies

Today is a big day in West Virginia. People with drug felony convictions have been unable to get SNAP food assistance since federal welfare "reform" passed in 1996. During the past session of the legislature, WV opted out of the ban.

According to this MetroNews article, deputy secretary Jeremiah Samples of the WV Dept. of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) estimates that as many as 15,000 people could benefit from this change. (I think it could be even more over time.)

Ending the ban was our top priority in the session. It was nice when co-conspirator Lida Shepherd sent this press release out this week:

Charleston, WV –  House Bill 2459, which lifts the federal ban on people with drug felony convictions from receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (otherwise known as SNAP or food stamps), goes into effect May 21st, 2019. 

Now people who were previously ineligible for SNAP due to a drug felony conviction will be able to apply for SNAP through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).  People whose drug felony crime resulted in a person’s injury or death, or that involved the fraudulent use of SNAP, will still be ineligible.

The exact number of people who will now be eligible to apply for SNAP under the new law is difficult to pin down. However, according to DHHR, in 2016 alone over 2,100 people applied for and were denied SNAP due to the ban.  This number does not account for people who never tried to apply because they were aware they were ineligible due to their conviction or those who were denied in other years.

Lida Shepherd with the American Friends Service Committee said, “This new policy going into effect is a big deal for thousands of people in our state, especially for those in recovery and who have just been released from prison, who are trying hard to put the pieces of their life back together.  Food security for these individuals is vital to their success reintegrating back into their community.”

I guess we can put "Mission Accomplished" on our aircraft carrier...That always turns out well, right?