April 20, 2017

A new motto?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about how the website WalletHub came up with a list of the best and worst places for millennials to live.

It’s no surprise that West Virginia came out on the bottom. But, as my friend Stephen Smith wrote with Pastor Mason Ballard in a Gazette-Mail op-ed online, it’s the best state to come to, if you want to make a difference.

And God knows we need that.

One of the reasons West Virginia might be unattractive to younger newcomers is the fact that it’s kind of falling apart, and the Republican majority in the Legislature apparently wants to pass a poverty budget that keeps things that way, by cutting K-12 and higher education, slashing social services and neglecting to invest in our people and infrastructure.Gazette-Mail reporter

Phil Kabler had a great riff on that theme in a recent column in which he envisioned the state as a shabby and unmaintained apartment for rent in a run-down neighborhood where schools are neglected and teachers laid off. Who would want to live in a place like that unless they had to?

One thing that could make things better in the short term is a budget that invests in people and infrastructure, along the lines that Gov. Jim Justice has proposed. Before a certain memorable news conference, lots of people I know were hoping he would veto the Legislature’s proposed budget. And some of us, including me, sounded the alarm and urged people to contact the governor in support of a veto.

I guess that’s something we can scratch off the list. And that’s no (metaphorical) BS.

It’s hard to tell how the budget battle will go, but there’s a lot riding on it. And a lot depends on whether and how much ordinary West Virginians are willing to stand up in support of the kind of budget that protects our people and gets us back on the road.

I do hope that, if and when a budget deal is sealed, it won’t involve a “compromise” that shifts the weight of taxes to those who can least afford it and sets up another fiscal crisis down the road.

Meanwhile, recent events have convinced me that I should devote my remaining days to updating the state motto to bring it up (or down) to date. “Mountaineers are always free” was great, but more suited to the days when our appetite for fighting for ordinary working people was more apparent.

My suggested replacement is: “You can’t make this **** up.” At least until such time as the other one fits again.

(Note: I even started looking for how to say this in Latin, until I was reminded that, as of 2016, the Legislature made English the state’s official language. I guess I can scratch that off the list, too.)

(This op-ed ran in today's Gazette-Mail)

April 17, 2017

Hands up

One argument often made in defense of slashing programs for low income and working people is that these discourage or "disincentivize" work. However, as Neil Irwin makes clear in this New York Times article, it's often the other way around.

According to Irwin, "Certain social welfare policies, according to an emerging body of research, may actually encourage more people to work and enable them to do so more productively."

For example the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable credit for workers with low and moderate (by WV standards), is a huge boon to millions of families. Studies suggest that the EITC encourages workforce participation by rewarding work. One study found that by 1999, 460,000 more women heads of household were working that would have been the case without the EITC.

(There's been an effort in WV for several years to create a state version, but that hasn't happened yet.)

Child care subsidies are another case in point. Costs for this can easily exceed college expenses. And they usually hit families at a time when their earnings haven't peaked. We've had several scrapes in West Virginia aimed at holding the line on these subsidies.

It only makes sense in a state with the lowest workforce participation rates to do what we can to make work affordable.

Research also supports the long term benefit of SNAP (formerly food stamps). A study of the early days of food stamps, a program that was rolled out at different times around. the country, found that those children who received this kind of nutritional support were more likely to be working decades later than those who didn't.

Specifically, a study titled "Long Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net" by
Hilary W. Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach  and Douglas Almond concluded that 

access to food stamps in utero and in early childhood leads to significant reductions in metabolic syndrome conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes) in adulthood and, for women, increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, income, and decreases in welfare participation).
This is another reason why expanding access to free school breakfasts and lunches to everyone is so important. This is one area in which West Virginia is a national leader.

Another intervention that pays huge dividends is early childhood education. Nobel economics laureate James Heckman assets that "Evidence shows that supplementing the family environments of disadvantaged children with educational resources is an effective and cost-efficient way to provide equal opportunity, achievement, and economic success."

These kinds of investments offer more promise of promoting shared prosperity than the current slash and burn approach to federal and state budgets.