March 25, 2020

The Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, which commemorates the story in the Gospel of Luke where the archangel Gabriel tells the young Mary that she is destined to bare a special child. I don't think I've ever marked the date before and only noticed it today by chance. Whether you take it literally or literarily, it is a charming story.

I love the sheer radicalism of the song this young (probably teenage) woman was said to have spontaneously sung on receiving the message:

My soul doth magnify the Lord, * and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded * the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth * all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, * and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him * throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; * he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, * and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, * and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, * as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever. 
Putting down the mighty, exalting the humble, filling the hungry with good things...let me just say that works for me.

Then there's the amazingly brief but eloquent way she responds to this news:

"Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word."

I hadn't given much thought to Mary or this story until I walked the Camino de Santiago in the fall of 2018, where you can't avoid seeing her image over and over. Whatever the Palestinian Jewish woman who gave birth to Jesus may have been like in history, I came to appreciate  the power of the archetype of Mary as the Theotokos (Greek for God-bearer).

March 23, 2020

Happy 10th, Affordable Care Act!

Happy 10th birthday, Affordable Care Act! Here's a blog post I wrote at the time President Obama signed it into law:

It's official. President Obama signed the health care reform bill into law yesterday.

He told those in attendance that
We have just now enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care.
Critics of the bill may point out that this isn't exactly the case, but there's no denying that this is a landmark piece of legislation that will extend health coverage to millions who have been doing without it. The New York Times calls it
the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago.
It remains to be seen whether the immediate benefits (political and otherwise) will outweigh the blowback. This item from Politico argues that the former will come before the latter, but I'm not sure I agree. It always seemed to me that a major drawback of the legislation was that the major expansion of health coverage via Medicaid and subsidies won't hit until several years down the line, meaning that the risks might hit earlier than the benefits.

Still, it probably will be hard for those who want to repeal it to win much of a crowd by saying "Bring back the donut hole" for Medicare Part D, or "let's cut those young people off their parent's insurance" or "Bring back denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions!"

The game has changed, although it's hard to guess just how or how much.

March 22, 2020

The dream cure

Healing temple of Asclepius at Kos, by way of wikipedia

The ancient Greeks had some interesting ideas about healing illnesses. One of these was the custom of using dreams to find cures. It worked like this: the patient would visit  and sleep in an Asclepeion or temple dedicated to the semi-divine physician Asclepius, son of the Apollo. The dreams of the patient would be used as the basis of the treatment.

I've always been interested in dreams and tried to pay attention to them. Sometimes they're just static, sometimes funny or scary, sometimes transparent wish fulfillment a la Freud. But sometimes, as Freud's renegade disciple Carl Jung argued, they're very deep. They can represent the insights of our unconscious mind, the oldest and biggest part of our mental apparatus.

I had a pretty good one last night that speaks to our current situation. In it, I was working to repair the roof of a house pretty far from the ground, something I'd never be able to pull off in real life. The slope of the roof was steep and I was in danger of falling off.

It occurred to me that I needed some kind of supporting connection, like a rope tied to something secure to keep from going over the edge. There were images of different kinds of knots--bowlines, square knots, slipknots and others I've long since forgotten from my volunteer firefighting and scouting days. Obviously, the knots and connections represented relations with others.

I think that's a pretty good metaphor for the social connections we need during this outbreak to keep from going over the edge, even if they involve social distancing or occur over long distances. Even if they're just remembered.

I'll take that. Thanks, Asclepius!

March 20, 2020

A poem for an indefinite time out period

In a time like this, I thought it might be appropriate to share this poem by Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). It might help a little.

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

March 19, 2020

Thoughts on getting through these days

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Stephen King…what can I say? I grew up reading his books and watching the movies.

I sometimes go years without going there. Other times, I binge on book after book. By King’s own admission, some are more gripping and substantial than others.

One that stuck with me over the years is The Stand. In case you missed it, the book starts with a super flu epidemic nicknamed Captain Trips that wipes out most of the human race.

Then things really get bad.

On a more literary level, one of my favorite novels is The Plague by Albert Camus, which I’ve often mentioned. It’s about an epidemic in Oran, Algeria around 1940, when the country was still under French control. And the disease is a metaphor for life in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The plague takes over the lives of everyone. People are separated from loved ones and feel totally confined and cut off from the rest of the world. Everything changes, including the sense of time.
In both books, the epidemic requires people to make moral decisions. In The Stand, it’s a pretty stark choice between good and evil. In The Plague, it’s interesting to see the different ways people respond to the situation. Some respond with quiet heroism, while others seem to profit or thrive from the epidemic.

For obvious reasons, those books have been on my mind lately. First though, let me say that the current situation is nowhere near these literary extremes and I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere close to them.

But I think the situation does require a response from us. Probably the worst things we can do now are either to politicize the Coronavirus outbreak (as in “Fake news. SAD”) or spread hysteria…which may entail taking a deep breath or two and stepping away from the TV every now and then.
So how should individuals and communities respond to the latest developments? And what can we learn from it? I have a few ideas:

*take reasonable, evidence-based steps to protect ourselves and pay attention to the latest recommendations and cooperate with the reasonable directions of health authorities, even if it can be a pain in the rear;

*if necessary, do what you can to nudge public officials to step up and do all they can to respond and prepare for the future if the virus spreads. Also, encourage them to take steps to ease the economic impact. We've already had some success with this in WV;

*take Mr. Rogers advice and “look for the helpers.”

*put things in perspective: it’s not like we were immortal before Coronavirus came around. We don’t know how bad the hit is going to be, but it’s not the only threat out there. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between Oct. 1 2019 and Feb. 29 2020, there have been an estimated 20,000 to 52,000 deaths from “regular” flu in the US. Worldwide, somewhere between 291,000 and 646,000 die annually from seasonal flu.

In a normal year, 40,000 Americans die from auto accidents. It’s been estimated that sugary drinks kill over 180,000 people per year in the US. According to the DHHR website, 300,000 deaths per year are related to obesity. The CDC reports that 480,000 Americans die each year due to cigarette smoking. Worldwide, tobacco kills around seven million people per year.

We don’t notice what we get used to.

*let’s not recreate past mistakes. Sometimes events like this make people search for someone to blame or some vulnerable group to target. During the Black Death of the mid 1300s, Christians blamed the plague on Jews, who were accused of poisoning wells. This unleashed horrific persecution throughout Europe. The “enemy” is a virus, not other people.

*this could be a reminder of how interconnected people are all over the world. Sometimes I think that very wealthy people, for example, think they can insulate themselves and their children from the effects of their actions on others, whether it’s the damage done by extreme inequality or climate change.

Sticking with the literature of epidemics, that was a theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which Prince Prospero and his aristocratic friends party in apparent safety while an epidemic raged outside their walls. It didn’t work out very well for them. 

There may be a lesson in that. As Bob Marley sang, “When the rain falls, it don’t fall on one man’s house.”

*this could also be a reminder of how important things like paid sick days, universal health care, universal basic income and out of school food programs for children are. We have a lot of unfinished business.

*but the main one is, after taking all reasonable precautions, not to stop living or being human or showing compassion to others out of fear. Shakespeare’s Henry V observed that “we owe God a death,” but let’s not die while we’re still breathing.

That’s the message of a Buddhist parable about a man chased by a tiger. When he comes to the edge of a cliff, he climbs down a vine. The tiger is waiting. At the bottom of the cliff, there’s another tiger. Meanwhile, two mice just out of reach start gnawing at the vine. Then he notices a ripe strawberry. He plucked it and took a bite. It tasted great. The end.

That’s pretty much the human condition.

I’m not suggesting that people should crank up the song “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

But if you do, enjoy the cowbell.

(This is an updated version of an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail last week.)

March 16, 2020

WV groups urge state action on COVID-19

Around 15 WV organizations, including AFSC have signed on to this letter to WV Governor Jim Justice. It ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail Saturday. Thanks to the WV Center on Budget and Policy for taking the lead on this:

As of publication, no cases of COVID-19 have been identified in West Virginia, but it is very likely only a matter of time until our state’s residents are affected.

While the Governor’s Office and state agencies are taking this issue very seriously, this pandemic has revealed serious holes in our state’s and nation’s health system, safety net and economic infrastructure. Fortunately, there are immediate measures that we, the undersigned, call on state officials to implement to address the situation.

In the short-term:

Begin holding daily press availability of staff of the Governor’s Office and the Bureau for Public Health. A key to preventing panic and keeping the public well-informed is the free flow of information and timely updates.

Waive copays and coinsurance for coronavirus testing and related visits. While the Public Employees Insurance Agency has announced this policy, West Virginia should require all insurers regulated by the state to cover coronavirus testing and related treatment at 100%, without coinsurance, copays or deductibles. This is critical to ensuring that cost concerns do not become a barrier to testing or treatment. People who go without testing because of cost concerns could spread COVID-19 to their communities.

Promote telehealth. West Virginia should require insurers to conduct outreach to consumers to make sure they are aware of telehealth benefits available to them to increase testing and decrease the spread of COVID 19. Telehealth services around COVID 19 diagnoses also should be covered at 100%, without coinsurance, deductibles or copays.

Bar utility shutoffs and evictions via executive action. Individuals and families who are financially affected by COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn and layoffs must not have their utilities shut off. In particular, water is a critical need, as is electricity for people who rely on medical devices.
Temporarily suspend re-determination of eligibility for federal assistance programs, as allowed. This will ensure that there is no interruption of critical medical, food or other needs and that interruptions in the state’s workforce and ability to process applications will not disrupt benefits.

Provide good-cause exemptions for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, work requirements and time limits. SNAP work requirements and time limits should be waived entirely but, in the absence of the ability to do that, West Virginia should provide good-cause exemptions to all adults known as “ABAWDs,” Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, ensuring access to food during this crisis. Outreach and education also should be conducted to let those who have previously been denied know they are eligible for benefits during this time.

Utilize contingency funds to provide outreach, education and testing to people who are most likely to be affected by COVID-19, including those in homeless shelters and West Virginians who visit food pantries and senior centers. Those who are most likely to be affected by community spread need to have access to health and food benefits and testing.

Waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance benefits and “noncharge” benefits to protect employers. Suspending the waiting period will help ensure financial security among unemployed or temporarily separated workers as a result of COVID-19, while “noncharging” benefits will protect employers from bearing the brunt of the increased uptake in unemployment insurance.

Waive state policies that terminate a child’s eligibility for Child Care and Development Fund child care subsidies based on a specific number of absent days. This will allow parents to make the decision to keep sick or exposed children home, curtailing the spread of virus without jeopardizing their longer-term eligibility for child care assistance.

Adjust payment policies to child care providers so that they are based on enrollment of children rather than attendance. This is critical in allowing sick children and parents to stay home without disrupting revenue for providers.

Suspend charging those in our state’s prisons and jails money for phone calls. During this time while visitation is curbed, those in our prisons and jails must not be charged for staying in touch with loved ones.

In the longer term:

Pass paid-sick-days policies.
Protect and expand Medicaid.
Restore funding to public health.
Implement paid family and medical leave for public and private employees.

March 13, 2020

Interesting times

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831)

I don't know if it's authentic, but supposedly there's an ancient Chinese curse that goes, "May you live in interesting times."

(According to author Terry Pratchett, there are two related curses. One is "may you come to the attention of those in authority" and the other is "may the gods give you everything you ask for." He's not sure about the authenticity of those either.)

At any rate, it looks like our time is starting to get interesting. I think it's very rarely a good thing when a world-historical event comes knocking on the door. I'm thinking things like the decision to invade Iraq, 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia in 1914, not that I was around for all the above.

I'm kind of reminded of a quote about history by the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who spoke of it as "the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized..."

OK, that may have been a bit of a downer. Here's hoping history forgets about us. Quickly.

March 12, 2020

Stating the obvious

It's becoming clear that the COVID outbreak is threatening the economy as well as the health and lives of people all over, with people staying away from work and businesses (although not the local Kroger store!) and cancelling travel plans.

The Trump administration has come up with a "stable genius" plan to boost the economy: cut the payroll taxes that fund things like Social Security and Medicare.

This rivals the brilliance of building a border wall in Colorado or digging a moat and filling it with snakes and gators...

There are some obvious problems with the plan, as Chye-Ching Huang with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out in this blog post. For starters, this wouldn't do a whole heckuva lot for the people who need it most, i.e. the people who miss work and don't get paid.

Another problem is that the economy needs a pretty big jolt sooner rather than later. Getting a few dollars more in a paycheck over a long period of time wouldn't make that much of a difference and it would weaken Social Security, etc.

Huang argues that "Sending stimulus checks to most Americans would put more money in households’ hands much more quickly than a payroll tax cut of the same cost. Also, stimulus checks can be sent both to workers and to people without earnings, including people receiving Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, or VA benefits and people unable to find jobs."

She also stresses the importance of strengthening and reforming unemployment insurance and food assistance programs, as well as enacting and extending paid sick leave.

And, while we're stating the obvious, let's not forget investing in public health and not messing with Medicaid.

March 11, 2020

Just thinking

There's nothing like a good outbreak of some kind to make you think about things. Here are some things I'm thinking about these days:

*WV attorney general Patrick Morrisey joined the lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act. How's that going down with the coronavirus outbreak?

*The US Supreme Court has taken up the case to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It would be...interesting if they did that with all this going on.

*Whatever happens, this highlights the importance of things like paid sick days for all workers, universal health care, investing in public health (and science education), and things like plans for feeding kids when they're out of school for whatever reason. We've got a lot of unfinished business.

March 10, 2020

Bible yes, Bible bill no

My late mother was something of a militant member of the Episcopal Church ... to the extent that’s even possible.

She wasn’t a literalist and was tolerant of people with different faiths or none at all, but she was fierce in her religious affiliation. In fact, that’s probably the main reason she married my father, who was the son of the first priest at St. Andrew’s in Oak Hill.

The marriage was kind of a bust, which indicates that this might not be the best criterion for mate selection.

Among the things that resulted from that union was my existence and the experience of being dragged to church, usually involuntarily, by my mother.

(There’s a vicious rumor that Episcopalians never read the Bible, one which I must now quash: we sometimes do, just in case we make it to “Jeopardy!”)

But seriously, getting brought up in that kind of environment is kind of like being marinated in Bible sauce. Most Episcopalians aren’t fundamentalist and don’t read the Bible as a science book or guide to criminal justice when it comes to stoning people to death for minor offenses, but the book comes with the territory.

A typical service consists of readings from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, a psalm, a reading from a New Testament epistle and a passage from the gospels. Most of the language of The Book of Common Prayer — which is one of the places the English language goes to show off — is biblical.

If you get dragged there enough, it just kind of seeps in, whether you want it to or not.

I noticed growing up that a lot of people I knew seemed to worship the Bible as if it was a divinity but had pretty vague ideas of what was actually in it.

This reminds me of the Bible story in Acts, where St. Paul chides the Athenians for worshiping “a god unknown.”

Eventually, I began reading it voluntarily, regardless of where I was in terms of religious belief. I’ve read it during the times I’ve been observant and during the times it seemed like the universe was random and purposeless. But I always read it.

The stories, sayings and metaphors stuck. I find myself using them all the time (almost as much as references to Bob Dylan lyrics or lines from “The Big Lebowski,” not that I’m suggesting equivalency). They have influenced my life to a great degree.

Biblical literacy is a key to understanding our culture and traditions. The book, or rather books, is/are treasure troves of words and images.

It’s impossible to understand the great speeches or writings of our tradition without a basic knowledge of it, from William Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Still, I have problems with the recently passed legislation that puts biblical instruction in public schools. It still must be signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice.

To state the obvious, not all students are Christian. But it goes beyond that. The interpretations likely to be presented will probably reflect only a pretty thin slice of diverse biblical traditions.

It’s likely to be tilted toward a nationalistic, white, Protestant, evangelical interpretation. There probably won’t be a lot of discussion of the more ancient biblical interpretations from Coptic, Orthodox or Catholic Christianity. I doubt there will be a lot of the freedom and justice-loving interpretations from African American church traditions or those from Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa or the island nations. There probably won’t be a lot of biblical commentary from the Talmud or Mishnah of Judaism.

And it’s a safe bet that classes won’t resemble those in nonsectarian universities, where the Bible is treated the same as any ancient document, with comparisons with contemporary texts, the historical record, anthropological research, archaeology, textual criticism, etc.

In fairness, it might be good if there was a space for students to learn, without recruitment, about the great texts of world religions.

My life has been enriched not just by the Bible, but by other traditions as well.

I’ve learned much about tradition, education and social order from the Analects of Confucius; about following nature from the Tao Te Ching; about compassion and mindfulness from Buddhist sutras; about the vast nature of divinity from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita; about mercy and justice from the extra-biblical teachings of rabbinical Judaism and the Islamic tradition; etc.

Learning about other faiths takes nothing away from one’s own.

Alas, that was the road not taken.

If I may echo ideas often expressed by my conservative friends (I actually have some), some things should be left to the private sector. This includes religious instruction.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that religions of all kinds flourish without state support in the U.S., while they have declined in industrially advanced nations with established churches.

While it’s good when we bring the values of our beliefs to the public sphere, the marriage of religion and government doesn’t usually result in better government. It results in bad religion.

All of which is to suggest that, if we’re not going to expose students to the varieties of religious experiences, we should leave religious instruction to families and communities.

Or just let ’em get it the old-fashioned way, by being dragged against their will to religious services by their elders.

It worked for me.

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

March 05, 2020

Country roads, let them drive

I hate to admit it, but “Country Roads” isn’t my favorite West Virginia song. I’m not even sure it would make my top 10, assuming I knew that many.

The song has, however, given a clever nickname to House Bill 4958, an amazingly good bill that passed the House and is up for consideration in the Senate.

The nickname is “Country Roads, Let Me Drive.”

The bill in question would solve some huge problems, including providing a boost to the state’s notoriously low workforce participation rate. Basically, it would end the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses for people who can’t afford to pay court fines and fees.

Instead, it would create payment plans for those who can’t afford to pay the full cost, while also allowing them to drive. It’s also retroactive, meaning that people whose licenses are already suspended for those reasons can be eligible to participate.

This makes sense for all kinds of reasons.

Let’s start with the basics: West Virginia is a rural state with over 24,000 square miles of territory and 39,000 miles of roads. Most people who live here aren’t in a position to walk to work, to shop, to pick up kids or to seek medical assistance.

There are some great public transit systems in the state, but there are huge areas without them. Even if you live in a place with public transportation, it may not synchronize with your work schedule or other family timelines. And it would be a bit awkward to carry a week’s worth of groceries on a crowded bus.

This is a huge problem nationwide. In an October story, ABC News reported that 11 million Americans can’t drive because they can’t afford to pay off fines and fees.

I assumed that the number of people affected by this in West Virginia would be pretty high, but I was stunned when the state Division of Motor Vehicles reported that this affected an estimated 100,000 West Virginians. That’s roughly one out of every 20 people, or 5.5% of the population.

It’s an even bigger chunk when compared with the state’s workforce, which last fall was reported to be around 763,000.

West Virginia has long had the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest workforce participation rate. Last fall, ours was reported to be at 54.8%, compared with a national average of 63%.

It’s a pretty safe bet to assume that most of the 100,000 West Virginians who can’t drive for these reasons are of working age. Passing HB 4958 would remove a major obstacle to work and would help break the cycle of poverty for many West Virginia families. It would ease the path to recovery and/or re-entry for people dealing with addiction issues or legal issues.

It would also be a winning proposition for courts and agencies that are owed fines. In the year after California ended the suspension of drivers’ licenses for nonpayment, the state reported an 8.9% increase in non-delinquent collections. This was attributed to creating payment plans based on ability to pay.

In West Virginia and around the country, there’s a growing consensus across the political divide that driving while poor should not be a crime.

I hope the state Senate seals the deal.

(This came out as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail earlier this week. The bill's chances are pretty good at the moment.)

February 26, 2020

Let's not "gig" working families

There are lots of ways working people can be deprived of their rights on the job. They can be discriminated against on the basis of race, nationality, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc.

They can be denied pay for overtime, a practice known as wage theft. They can be cheated out of break- and mealtimes. They can be deprived of their rights to associate and organize.

They can be compelled to work under unsafe conditions. They can have promised benefits, such as pensions, taken away.

But maybe the worst way to abuse working people is to deny that they are workers at all.

Unfortunately, that’s just what Senate Bill 528, now making its way through the West Virginia Legislature, does. Titled the “Creating Uniform Worker Classification Act,” the bill comes straight from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded group that cranks out model state legislation that benefits big donors.

SB 528 allows businesses to reclassify workers as “independent contractors.” And that makes all the difference.

While U.S. and West Virginia labor laws are pretty weak compared to other economically advanced nations, state and federal laws do provide some protection for employees, sometimes including legal remedies.

By allowing companies to classify workers as independent contractors, this bill would take those protections away.

For example, an employee injured on the job is generally eligible for workers’ compensation. Independent contractors are not.

When employees lose jobs through no fault of their own, they’re entitled to unemployment insurance. Independent contractors are not.

Employees are protected to a degree by anti-discrimination laws (although West Virginia has yet to enact state anti-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation). Independent contractors are not.

It’s tough to do these days, but employees have the legal right to organize unions and bargain collectively. Contractors don’t.

In the case of programs like Social Security and Medicare, costs for retirement and post-retirement health care are jointly paid for by the employer and the employee. Independent contractors are totally on their own.

Supporters of such legislation claim this will help facilitate the so-called “gig economy,” (a term that makes me think, perhaps appropriately, of the practice of stabbing or “gigging” frogs with barbed, pitchfork-like spears to harvest their legs for food).

The non-frog version refers to those parts of a workforce based on temporary and often short-term engagements. While there are people, generally those with specialized skills in high demand, who fit this profile, being reclassified as an independent contractor is a losing proposition for most working people.

According to the National Employment Law Center, SB 528, if enacted, would “allow employers in any industry to easily convert virtually any worker into an independent business, simply by presenting the worker with a take-it-or-leave-it contract that may not reflect the actual relationship between the parties.” Examples might include people working in home health care, construction, transportation, retail, etc.

The measure doesn’t just undermine workers’ rights and labor standards. The law center also cites research showing this kind of reclassification actually would result in lost revenue while also putting responsible employers at a disadvantage.

So is it possible to legitimately distinguish between an employee and a real independent contractor? In a word, yes.

Fortunately, there’s such a thing as an “ABC test,” according to which people may be fairly classified as independent contractors if they are outside the control of the hiring entity, the work they perform is outside the hiring entity’s usual business and the contractors are customarily engaged in this kind of work. That’s a sensible approach and one that should be allowed to stand.

West Virginia’s working families are having a hard enough time getting by these days. They certainly don’t need to be “gigged” by this kind of trick.

It’s bad enough when it happens to frogs.

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

February 19, 2020

Speaking tooth to power

Sometimes I’m kind of slow on the uptake. That statement probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this.

One of many examples of this has to do with oral health. I used to think of this mostly in terms of things like abscesses and toothaches, two treatable maladies that can get serious if untreated. The former can kill you, while the latter can make you wish you were dead.

As I’ve eventually learned, that’s just the start of it. Poor oral health is associated with serious and even potentially fatal diseases, like endocarditis (an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers and valves), cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and pneumonia, as well as pregnancy and childbirth complications. On the flip side, diseases such as diabetes and osteoporosis can affect oral health.

There’s also a big connection between oral health and mental health, aside from the obvious fact that constant pain is a downer. Embarrassment over one’s teeth can lead to social isolation. There’s even a connection between poor oral health and memory loss.

This is a particularly serious problem in West Virginia. In 2014, a survey found that people here who earned below the federal poverty level were nearly 20 percent less likely to receive dental care than people who weren’t poor.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found major disparities in accessing dental care along lines of race, income and educational attainment in the Mountain State. Around 45 percent of adults hadn’t visited a dentist in over a year and 22 percent had gone more than five years without a dental visit.

Specifically, 68 percent of people earning less than $15,000 hadn’t had a visit in over a year, compared with 26 percent for people earning more than $75,000. In terms of race, 55 percent of black West Virginians had gone more than a year without a visit, while, for white residents, it was 44 percent.

Huge gaps in accessing dental care can also be seen when we look at educational attainment. Sixty-eight percent of people who had gone a year or more without visiting a dentist didn’t graduate from high school. That number was 50 percent for high school graduates, 40 percent for people who attended some college or technical school and 23 percent for college or technical school graduates.

There’s another way in which West Virginia is an outlier: According to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, the state is one of only 16 that doesn’t offer dental coverage to adults receiving Medicaid, beyond extractions — and those are limited to two per year. Most others offer a range of coverage that can include preventative, restorative and periodontal services, as well as things like dentures, oral surgery and orthodontia.

This lack of coverage is expensive in more ways than one. For one thing, dental problems make it harder for people to gain and keep employment. For another, the diseases associated with poor oral health are way more expensive to take care of than an occasional but regular trip to the dentist.

According to one study, regular oral care led to a 40 percent reduction in diabetes-related costs for type 2 diabetes patients and a 73 percent reduction of related costs for individuals with coronary artery disease.

Then there’s this: People without dental coverage wind up in hospital emergency rooms for treatment and pain control associated with these problems. Hospitals generally aren’t set up to deal with them, and what help they give is often 10 times more expensive than a trip to a dentist.

Adding oral health coverage to the state’s Medicaid program would also be a smart investment. For every such state dollar invested in the program, West Virginia would receive around $3 in federal funding. For the state’s Medicaid expansion program, the return on investment is even better, bringing in $9 federal dollars for each dollar in state investment.

It would be hard to find that kind of payoff these days for any investment. Especially a legal one.

We can and should do more for oral health in our Medicaid program than just pay for extractions. Let’s face it, we’re not exactly running a tooth surplus in this state.

Covering oral health would reduce unnecessary suffering, help more people enter and stay in the workforce, bring in more dollars to the state’s economy and save money in the treatment of serious chronic diseases.

There is some good news here. Senate Bill 648, which would extend Medicaid coverage for oral health, just cleared the Senate Health Committee. In a time of polarization, legislators across party lines have begun to recognize both the problem and the solution.

It may take the voices of ordinary West Virginians to help that bill cross the finish line. It would be an example of (groan) speaking tooth to power.

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

February 12, 2020

How not to save rural health care

Recently, Gov. Jim Justice called for the creation of a task force to address West Virginia’s rural health systems. It’s a timely idea. Hospitals from the northern panhandle to the southern coalfields are facing a sea of troubles, from bankruptcies to layoffs to outright closings.

It’s a nationwide problem. According to researchers at the University of North Carolina, since 2005, 163 rural hospitals have closed around the country. Of those, 121 have closed since 2010. Last year saw the highest number of closings since 2005, with 19 hospitals closing their doors.

According to a national investigation by GateHouse Media, another 700 are “on shaky ground,” and around 200 are “on the verge of collapse.”

Looking at national trends, 72 percent of rural hospitals that closed did so in states that chose not to expand Medicaid.

As scary as things are here, they’d be a lot scarier if the state hadn’t made the decision to expand Medicaid back in 2013 to working people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2018 alone, the expansion brought over $900 million to the state.

That money didn’t go to buying junk food or Mountain Dew. It went to providing preventive care, treatment for acute and chronic diseases, injuries and, when necessary, treatment for recovery from addiction. It also helped shore up health care providers, from hospitals to community health centers to physicians to nurses to other health care workers. And that means supporting local jobs and economies.

Here’s a modest proposal: While we’re trying to figure out how to make our rural health system better, let’s not make things worse by messing with Medicaid.

Unfortunately, a bill introduced in the legislature would do just that. House Bill 4018, if enacted, would make a bad situation worse by imposing reporting requirements on people covered by the program. The bill does nothing to actually promote employment — most of the people covered are already working. Instead, it creates another level of paperwork, bureaucracy and surveillance, wasting time and resources that could be better spent on getting and keeping people healthy.

The bill is similar to a failed policy enacted in Arkansas that was fortunately struck down in federal court. Before being shut down, the program needlessly cut off between one-fourth and one-third of people in the program, with no positive effect on employment.

Not only that, but it unnecessarily wasted taxpayer money. An audit by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), an investigative arm of congress, found the reporting requirement wound up costing that state $26 million. That added up to an unnecessary $152 in excess overhead costs for each person enrolled in the program.

If something like this was tried in West Virginia, assuming it would stand up in court (with all those associated costs) and assuming similar results, this would mean that somewhere between 40,000 and 53,000 of the approximately 160,000 beneficiaries would lose coverage. That means people not getting needed health care. And that means a proportional reduction in the $900+ million the expansion now brings to the state, not to mention millions in additional costs.

It’s a good thing to create a task force to figure out solutions. But for all kinds of reasons, let’s not make a tough situation worse by pulling the plug on rural health care’s life support system.

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

February 11, 2020

Act now for summer food for kids

The WV Summer Feeding for All bill (HB 2794) has a great chance to move through the House this week. If you care about our children getting food this summer and throughout the school year when it is not in session, email House Education Committee chair Joe Ellington and vice-chair Delegate Joshua Higginbotham today and tomorrow.

Below is a script to guide you. But nothing is more passionate than our own thoughts and words.

"Hello Delegate ____ ,

My name is _____ and I am concerned about our West Virginia school age children not receiving nutritious meals when school is not in session.

HB 2794, the Summer Feeding for All bill would play a major role in assisting counties and schools with making sure families know where they can go to receive food when school is not in session, including unforeseen emergency events including natural disasters. Please consider placing it on the education committee agenda for this coming week." 

(The bill would require counties to assess out of school student needs and resources and report this to the Office of Child Nutrition. This will give local parents and advocates information they need to expand out of school food programs.)

If you're in the Charleston area tomorrow (Feb. 12), there will be a Compassion Calls Us presentation in the lower rotunda at 10 a.m. It's also Food and Farm Day, so there will be lots of like minded people there and it'll be a good chance to move the bill.

February 05, 2020

At the WV legislature, not all bills are bad...really

It’s encouraging that some positive health-related bills and policies seem to be moving at the state Capitol.

One huge advance was announced in December, when Gov. Jim Justice directed the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to study options for eliminating the waiting list for the Intellectual and Development Disabilities Waiver, or I/DD, program.

This program allows individuals with special needs to receive care in their homes and communities, rather than an institutional setting, a policy that makes sense both in terms of human needs and budget savings.

While the state has had this program for a good while, many eligible people, mostly children, weren’t getting the services they need.

Over 4,800 West Virginians were participating in the program as of November 2019. However, over 1,000 people, mostly children, have been on a waiting list to receive services, some for over four years.

That’s some good news. More could be on the way:

HB 4416 would build on legislation passed last year that extended Medicaid coverage for 60 days postpartum for women between 138 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level. This year’s proposed legislation would extend that coverage to a full year.

That’s a big deal, because the maternal mortality rate has been increasing in recent years. Last year, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported that “American women are three times more likely to die during or after birth than women in Great Britain, and eight times more likely than women in Scandinavian countries.”

Fortunately, West Virginia’s rate is lower than the national average, but still, 15 women died in the first year after giving birth in 2018, with eight of those deaths related to substance use, according to Beckley’s Register-Herald. Extending coverage for a year could help ensure services for substance use disorder, postpartum depression and other complications.

SB 648 would provide dental coverage to adults on Medicaid. The bill was introduced by Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, with several Republican co-sponsors. Oral heath goes way beyond toothaches, which are bad enough. According to the Mayo Clinic, oral health could contribute to conditions such as endocarditis (an infection of the inner lining of heart chambers), cardiovascular disease, pregnancy and birth complications, and pneumonia — all of which are way more expensive than a trip to the dentist.

Then there’s one that strikes close to home for me: HB 4543, which would cap insulin costs for West Virginians with type I and II diabetes.

My daughter was diagnosed with type I diabetes when she was pregnant with my grandson. Type I is a very scary autoimmune disease apparently caused by environmental and genetic factors unrelated to things like diet and exercise. As if that weren’t enough, my grandson was diagnosed with the same disease in middle school.

Both are very athletic and diet-conscious. My daughter has earned a black belt in karate and run several ultra-marathons. My grandson is a champion golfer.

Even with that, dealing with Type I is like having a full-time job that wants to kill you. I’d take heart disease any day.

The lifeline is insulin, which is needed just to maintain life for as long as the patient lives. Different diabetics require different kinds of insulin, and the costs can be astronomical. For my daughter and grandson, the costs of a refill that lasts for five or six weeks is $849.75.

That’s with health insurance and discount cards.

They’re not alone. According to the proposed legislation:

It’s estimated that over 240,000 West Virginian’s are diagnosed and living with type I or type II diabetes and another 65,000 are living with one of those conditions but haven’t been diagnosed. Every person with type I, and many with type II, require insulin to live.

Medical costs associated with diabetes in West Virginia are estimated to be $2.5 billion.
People with diabetes typically incur medical costs around 2.3 times higher than people without the disease.

The cost of insulin has increased astronomically, especially the cost of insurance co-payments, which can exceed $600 per month, not counting other necessary equipment and supplies.

According to national reports, as many as one in four type I diabetics underuse, or ration, insulin because of these increased costs. Rationing insulin has resulted in nerve damage, diabetic comas, amputation, kidney damage and even death.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Recently, a group of West Virginians with diabetes took a bus trip to Canada to buy insulin. Prices there are about one-tenth of what they are here, because that nation controls the price of pharmaceuticals to ensure that the price of medicine isn’t excessive and remains comparable with prices in other countries.

The proposed West Virginia legislation would do the same.

This lifesaving bill enjoys bipartisan support and has been championed by House Health and Human Resources Chairman Jordan Hill, R-Nicholas, and Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.

Taken together, these measures could help a lot of West Virginia families. I’d like to see them cross the finish line.

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

January 30, 2020

Corporate tax cuts or kids and colleges?

Back in 2007, the West Virginia Legislature dramatically changed the state’s tax system, reducing business taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The package included phasing out the business franchise tax and reducing the corporate net income tax from 9 percent to 6.5 percent. Other cuts and credits would follow.

The annual dollar amount of the cuts, at least $250 million, would have been more than enough to cover the costs of undergraduate tuition for every West Virginian enrolled in state universities, which could have really been a game changer for the state.

Talk about a road not taken.

It was argued at the time that these tax cuts would “pay for themselves,” a scenario about as probable as the belief that if you take gasoline out of your car you can drive it farther. What we did get in that department was an almost annual budget shortfall, including a gap of $27 million this year that had to be made up by one-time transfers from the state Treasurer’s Office.

Usually, budget shortfalls translate into budget cuts.

And the governor’s annual budget report to the Legislature anticipates that the next several years will be even leaner.

This loss of funding has hit higher education particularly hard and raised tuition rates for students. The state spent less per student on higher education in 2018 than it did in 2008.

According to a 2017 report by the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, “Since 2008, state spending in higher education has declined by $130 million, adjusting for inflation.” Tuition rates have doubled since the early 2000s, in a state that trails the nation in educational attainment, with all that that implies in terms of lost income and lower workforce participation.

We were also promised at the time that these tax cuts would create jobs, which didn’t happen. According to the Quarterly Census on Employment and Wages, in the 10 years between 2007 and 2017, employment in all industries of all sizes fell from 706,172 to 683,807. The most recent data suggests that, at best, we’re back where we started over 12 years ago.

All of which is to say that the first 10 years of tax cuts brought the state a whole lot of nothing in the way of benefits.

Fast forward to 2020. The Legislature is once again pondering another major round of corporate tax cuts, which leads me to conclude that some people really do want it all.

The latest proposed cuts specifically involve the elimination of the business personal property tax, which covers things like machinery and equipment, tools, fixtures and inventory. There will no doubt be promises that these cuts will pay for themselves and create jobs. Déjà vu all over again.

I’m reminded of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoons.

This alleged “job killing” tax amounts to less than 1 percent of what businesses pay for materials, according to Census data. When you factor in other costs of doing business, such as payroll, energy and capital expenditures, we’re talking about something less than a rounding error. And one peer-reviewed study suggests that eliminating the machinery tax could have the unintended consequence of reducing employment by encouraging automation.

Eliminating this tax would affect state and local governments and particularly hit funding for public schools.

If enacted, these cuts will either mean our schoolchildren and public services take a hit or the lost revenue would be made up by increasing regressive taxes on working families.

It makes a whole lot more sense to invest in our children, workforce and communities.

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

January 20, 2020

Of prophecy and hypocrisy

Today I attended the official West Virginia Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Charleston for the umpteenth time. As always, the service was well done, with plenty of speakers and music. 

A special highlight for me was the keynote, given by my good friend Jennifer Wells, executive director of the WV Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, not to mention some powerful and pointed comments by Charleston Rabbi Victor Urecki.

There's a tendency at things like this to try to neutralize the radical and cutting edge of Dr. King's work, re-imagining him as a benevolent and non-threatening soul who just wanted to "bring people together"  His powerful and prophetic words and deeds regarding poverty, inequality, oppression, racism, war, militarism, and--let's face it--capitalism tend to be glossed over. But Jennifer and Rabbi Urecki, along with several other speakers, made sure it didn't happen this time.

The thing that galls me at these events are some--not all--of the politicians who attend this as just a public ritual and sit there nodding their heads and hearing nothing and pretending to admire someone they would have feared and hated if he was here today.

Today, this reminded me of a great and cutting song by the late Phil Ochs called "Crucifixion." Here are the lyrics:

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie
'Til the universe explodes as a falling star is raised
Planets are paralyzed; the mountains are amazed
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies
In the green fields a-turning, a baby is born
His cries crease the wind and mingle with the morn
An assault upon the order, the changing of the guard
Chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard
And the only single sign is the sighing of the stars
But to the silence of distance they are sworn
So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you
Images of innocence charge him to go on
But the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn
To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate
And a blinding revelation is laid upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love there's a hurricane of hate
And God help the critic of the dawn
So he stands on the sea and he shouts to the shore
But the louder that he screams, the longer he's ignored
For the wine of oblivion is drunk to the dregs
And the merchants of the masses almost have to be begged
'Til the giant is aware someone's pulling at his leg
And someone is tapping at the door
To dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you
Then his message gathers meaning, and it spreads across the land
The rewarding of his fame is the following of the man
But ignorance is everywhere, and people have their way
Success is an enemy to the losers of the day
In the shadows of the churches, who knows what they pray?
For blood is the language of the band
The Spanish bulls are beaten, the crowd is soon beguiled
The matador is beautiful, a symphony of style
The excitement is ecstatic, passion places bets
Gracefully he bows to ovations that he gets
But the hands that are applauding him are slippery with sweat
And saliva is falling from their smiles
So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you
Then this overflow of life is crushed into a liar
The gentle soul is ripped apart and tossed into the fire
First a smile of rejection at the newness of the night
Truth becomes a tragedy, limping from the light
All the heavens are horrified, they stagger from the sight
As the cross is trembling with desire
They say they can't believe it, it's a sacrilegious shame
Now who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?
But you know, I predicted it, I knew he had to fall
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small
Tell me every detail, for I've got to know it all
And do you have a picture of the pain?
So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you
Time takes a toll and the memory fades
But his glory is growing in the magic that he made
Reality is ruined, it's the freeing from the fear
The drama is distorted into what they want to hear
Swimming in their sorrow in the twisting of a tear
As they wait for the new thrill parade
Yes, the eyes of the rebel have been branded by the blind
To the safety of sterility the threat has been refined
The child was created, to the slaughterhouse he's led
So good to be alive when the eulogies are read
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
As the cycle of sacrifice unwinds
So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you
And the night comes again to the circle studded sky
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie
'Til the universe explodes as a falling star is raised
Planets are paralyzed; the mountains are amazed
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies

January 19, 2020

Why WV needs immigrants

For pretty much every year since 2008, I've worked with the WV Center on Budget and Policy on a report called The State of Working West Virginia. Each year, there's a different focus. This time around the spotlight was on the state of West Virginia's immigrant population, which is tiny in comparison to most states but contributes greatly to our economy and culture.

We released the report last week as part of an event launching Many Roads Home, a new social media effort that highlights the stories and contributions of the state's immigrants.

We have a working agreement on the division of labor for these projects: the folks from the policy center, such as this year's co-author Sean O'Leary, do the hard parts with numbers and graphs. I do the easy parts.

It was pretty easy to point out why WV needs immigrants. Here's an excerpt with the punch line:

In 1950, the US population was over 1,50 million. West Virginia’s population that year reached its all-time high of slightly over 2 million.
Fast forward to 2019. The US population has more than doubled from the 1950 level to over 329 million. West Virginia’s population has declined by around 200,000 over the same period. A 2002 analysis by the West Virginia Health Statistics Center found that, if nobody had either moved into, nor out of, West Virginia for the 50 years between 1950 and 2000, the normal rate of population increase would have resulted in a state with 2,605,345 residents. That number would have been much higher today. 
The state and its communities are facing some serious demographic problems:
*West Virginia is among the oldest states in terms of median age.
*It has the lowest workforce participation rate, which hovers around 50 percent of its eligible population. The national average is around 63 percent.
*As of Dec. 2017, 73,879 West Virginians of all ages received Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) for a disability.
*By 2018, 26.3 percent of West Virginians, or 475,744 individuals, received Social Security or Social Security Disability Insurance.
*Between 2010 and 2018, there were 19,000 more deaths than births.
*According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, West Virginia has the highest age adjusted death rate from opioid overdoses.
*Between July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, the state lost 11,216 people, a rate of over 30 people per day.
*Public school enrollment declined by 4,122 students in the last year.
These trends indicate a serious downward spiral. If not reversed, they could spell a more or less slow death to West Virginia’s communities. To thrive—or even to survive—West Virginia needs to be, and be seen as, a welcoming place for new arrivals from around the world. West Virginians have done this before under tough conditions in the days of industrialization, bridging differences and forging bonds of solidarity in ways that enriched our culture and contributed to the world at large. We need to build on that tradition.

January 15, 2020

Hungry times

In case you missed it, here's a great New York Times article about the impact of restrictions on SNAP food assistance in West Virginia. It actually features my hometown, along with the great work of a friend and comrade with the WV Center on Budget and Policy's Seth DiStefano.

Beginning in 2016, the state imposed work reporting requirements on the nine counties with the best employment outlook...and the result was disaster, with over 5,400 people being cut off. As a result of bad legislation passed last year, that failed policy is going statewide.

Now, thanks to a certain presidential administration, that bad idea is about to be nationalized, as I wrote in this blog post for the national AFSC.

Yesterday, WV Governor Jim Justice proclaimed "Hunger Free West Virginia Day." While we're hoping to make some progress in that arena, I wanted to scream that the job would be a lot easier if WV hadn't messed with SNAP to start with.

January 09, 2020

Time to follow up on criminal justice reform

West Virginia’s legislators have grappled with the human and fiscal costs of mass incarceration and prison overcrowding for the past decade.

These efforts include two major studies of the state’s correctional system and several pieces of legislation to address the issues. While there is much to celebrate, several policy measures could be taken to reduce overcrowding in the state’s regional jails and prisons in ways consistent with public safety.

Since these issues are likely to be considered in the 2020 legislative session, it might be good to look back at some of what did — and didn’t— happen.

In 2010, the West Virginia Law Institute submitted detailed recommendations to the Legislature. It found that, “Although the state itself enjoys a history of some of the lowest reported crime rates, it currently has one of the highest increasing rates of prison growth in the country that is marked by insufficient correctional resources, inadequate imprisonment statistics and minimal alternative sanctions.”

The report made several recommendations, including expanding alternative sanctions, such as: community-based corrections; adopting validated measures of assessing risks and needs of offenders; increasing substance-use and mental-health treatment facilities; creating transitional housing for parolees; presumptive eligibility for parole; sentencing reform; improved data collection; and additional research and public education.

In 2012-13, the Council of State Governments Justice Center made similar recommendations after extensive consultations. They noted that, “Between 2002 and 2012, the number of people in West Virginia’s prisons increased 50 percent, with the prison population projected to grow an additional 24 percent by 2018.” Legislation enacting some of the measures was passed in 2013.

Since those studies, the state has made progress in community corrections, risk/needs assessments, alternative sanctions, drug courts and the capacity for treating substance-use disorder. The following additional measures may be worth considering:

*Sentencing reform: According to the Law Institute report, the state “imposes some of the longest sentences in the country, sends to and keeps in prison a much higher percentage of convicted defendants rather than placing them in alternative programs, and maintains various practices that result in more people incarcerated for longer periods of time.”
It called for a review of sentencing for offenses that include robbery, burglary, forgery and uttering, shoplifting, controlled-substance possession, fraud, etc.

Excessive sentencing increases overcrowding and costs but does little for public safety. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. The longer people are incarcerated, the more difficult it is for them to successfully re-enter the community, and the more likely it is that some will commit another offense.

The institute also recommended ending the practice of charging multiple offenses for the same act and making concurrent, rather than consecutive, sentencing the default practice, unless a judge has reasons to do otherwise.

*Early release to community supervision for nonviolent offenders: The 2013 legislation included a provision for the release of nonviolent offenders to community supervision when they reached 180 days prior to the calculated discharge date.

This measure passed the Senate but was removed in the House of Delegates.

It was estimated then that this would reduce the impact of the legislation by one-third. This is a major reason why the legislation wasn’t as successful as it might have been in reducing overcrowding. The 2020 session would be a good time to revisit that missed opportunity.

*Earned time: An additional measure to consider would be allowing inmates to earn time off their sentences by completing appropriate educational and rehabilitative programs, which would improve the hard and soft skills that promote successful re-entry and post-release employment.

*Bail reform: In the 2019 regular legislative session, the deputy commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation told the House Judiciary Committee that, in 2018, counties paid the Regional Jail Authority over $1.9 million to jail individuals unable to post bail of $1,000 or less for misdemeanor charges.

That year, 3,750 people spent an average of 11 days in jail before being released. This amounted to a total of 41,058 days, at a daily cost of $48.25. Decisions regarding the pretrial release of accused offenders should be based on considerations of public safety, rather than poverty.
While technically bail is about jails, rather than prisons, West Virginia’s overcrowding problem is so severe that many people who have been sentenced to prison time are backlogged to even more overcrowded regional jails, which often don’t offer the kinds of programs that make one eligible for parole. This is a dangerous situation for those incarcerated in jails and for those who work in them.

Then there’s this: Keeping people who haven’t been convicted of a crime in jail just because they’re poor separates families, can cause people to lose jobs and fall even further behind economically and makes it harder for them to prepare for their day in court.

*Parole reform: West Virginia should move in the direction of presumptive eligibility for parole, a system in which incarcerated individuals with qualifying offenses are released upon first becoming eligible for parole unless the parole board finds explicit reasons to not release them.

Common-sense reforms like these could go a long way toward addressing crowding problems, saving tax dollars, promoting public safety, easing re-entry and strengthening families and communities.

(This ran as an op-ed in yesterday's Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

January 04, 2020

Is war worth it? What veterans think

As the US teeters on the edge of another war of choice thanks to the actions of Prince Joffrey  President Trump, it might be good to take a look at what veterans think of the last couple wars.

According to the Pew Research Center,

Among veterans, 64% say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting considering the costs versus the benefits to the United States, while 33% say it was. The general public’s views are nearly identical: 62% of Americans overall say the Iraq War wasn’t worth it and 32% say it was. Similarly, majorities of both veterans (58%) and the public (59%) say the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. About four-in-ten or fewer say it was worth fighting.
 Veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are no more supportive of those engagements than those who did not serve in these wars. And views do not differ based on rank or combat experience.
Since these are the people, mostly from the working class, who are going to put their bodies at risk next time around in another war started by rich people, it might be good to consider what they think.

I keep going back to what John Adams, our second president, had to say on the subject: "Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war."

And then there's this line from Dylan: "Here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice."

January 02, 2020

Forget Christmas-the real war is on food assistance

According to the ancient Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching, which can be translated as The Way and Its Power,

The Tao of heaven is like the bending of a bow.
The high is lowered, and the low is raised.
If the string is too long, it is shortened;
If there is not enough, it is made longer.  
The Tao of heaven is to take from those who have too much
and give to those who do not have enough.
Man's way is different.
He takes from those who do not have enough
to give to those who already have too much. 

For a contemporary example of the latter, you can find a pretty good—or bad—example in the Trump administration’s serial assaults on food assistance, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Earlier this month, the administration announced a policy that make it harder for adults without dependents to get SNAP, imposing work reporting requirements and limits on the length of time they can receive food assistance. It would also make it harder for states to get a federal waiver to avoid these harsh policies.

This measure could cut off benefits for an estimated 700,000 destitute Americans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Those affected by the change are among the poorest in the U.S., with an average income at just 18 percent of the poverty line, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture,

“Most of these individuals are ineligible for any other form of government financial assistance because they aren’t elderly, severely disabled, or raising minor children,” notes Robert Greenstein of CBPP. “For many of them, SNAP is the only assistance they can receive to help make ends meet.”

Not only is the administration’s decision to take food off people’s tables morally reprehensible, it will do nothing to encourage employment among SNAP participants. In fact, the measure is a replay of a failed policy that was tried in West Virginia in 2017, when the state imposed similar requirements as a pilot in the nine counties that had the lowest unemployment rate and presumably the best economic opportunities.

When the results were tabulated, it turned out that this measure resulted in cutting over 5,400 people from the program … and it had no impact on increasing employment. By taking away SNAP benefits from low-income people, it actually took money from grocery stores and the local economy—and placed greater burdens on already stressed charities that had to scramble to meet increased need.

The Trump administration’s latest attack on food security comes in the wake of two other proposed changes that would change the way eligibility for SNAP is calculated, resulting in even more cuts to the program and threatening eligibility for other key food assistance programs, including those that provide free school breakfasts and lunches to children.

All these measures are an attempted end run around Congress, which protected SNAP from devastating cuts in the 2018 bipartisan Farm Bill.

The time limits for SNAP are set to take effect on April 1, 2020, unless Congress or the courts takes action to stop it, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). “The final rule would cause serious harm to individuals, communities, and the nation while doing nothing to improve the health and employment of those impacted by the rule. In addition, the rule would harm the economy, grocery retailers, agricultural producers, and communities by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur local economic activity.”

One thing that people around the country could do is talk to their representatives in Congress and urge them to speak out against these cruel changes. Whatever happens next, our goal in West Virginia can be summed up in the saying “food for all.” To state the obvious, the problem isn’t that too many people in the U.S. receive SNAP benefits—the problem is that so many need them.

(This first appeared in a blog post for the AFSC.)