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.




August 06, 2019

A little good news...for real

These are pretty dark days, but here's a bit of good news about the closing of a huge child detention camp in Florida that people all over the US, including WV, worked on:

 MIAMI, FL (August 3 2019) – The last migrant children in the detention center in Homestead, FL have left. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) – a Quaker organization that has worked for immigrant and refugee rights for over 100 years – has led a campaign along with organizations in Florida and across the country to shut down the detention center and work to end the practice of detaining migrant children. 
“We are immensely relieved and overjoyed that our community will no longer be home to a detention center that has traumatized and harmed children,” said Mariana Martinez, an organizer with AFSC and a resident of Homestead. “And it is time for our community to heal and to invest in jobs that bring sustainability and resources.”
“We are incredibly grateful to the hundreds of thousands of people who signed petitions, wrote to their congresspeople, and took to the streets across the country to close the prison camp for children in Homestead,” said Kristin Kumpf, Director of Human Migration and Mobility for AFSC. “Thanks to their help, we were able to deliver over 128,000 petition signatures to the Department of Health and Human Services to successfully shut down Homestead detention center and say never again to the use of facilities like these to imprison children.” 
The campaign to shut down Homestead detention center also included actions outside the center with community members, elected officials, and faith leaders, and a letter writing campaign to send messages of hope to the children inside. 
The campaign called on the leadership of the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to close the detention center and stop using emergency influx facilities – instead ORR should work as quickly as possible to unite children with their sponsors. The campaign also called on these agencies to stop collaborating with the Department of Homeland Security to criminalize and intimidate sponsors for migrant children.
HHS has said that most children were reunited with sponsors, but some have been transferred to other facilities. AFSC is working to end the practice of detaining migrant children. 
“As the school year resumes here in Florida, it is time for these children to be in schools and homes instead of prison camps. It’s well past time to end the abusive practice of detaining and deporting migrants seeking a better life for themselves and their communities,” said Lis-Marie Alvarado, community organizer with AFSC. “Closing Homestead detention center is a massive victory in this struggle. We will continue to work to end child detention for good.” 
More information will be shared as it becomes available. 
To learn more about the campaign to shut down Homestead detention center and end child detention, visit: https://migrantjustice.afsc.org/ 

July 31, 2019

Pardon me for being a bore, but this is kind of important

The Trump administration has recently proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that could take away food assistance from 3 million or more Americans.

This step would ignore the clear will of bipartisan majorities in both the U.S. Senate and House that voted in the Farm Bill to leave the program intact.

Here’s what it does: eliminates the “broad based categorical eligibility” (BBCE) for people receiving SNAP. This allows people who are eligible for other assistance programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Supplemental Security Income or other programs to be automatically eligible for SNAP.

Here’s why it’s bad: eliminating the BBCE creates a cliff effect in which people could experience drastic cuts in benefits when their living conditions modestly improve.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “SNAP supports work in part by phasing benefits down gradually — by only 24 to 36 cents for each dollar of increased earnings. But without BBCE, a family can lose substantial SNAP benefits from a small earnings increase that raises its gross income over SNAP’s eligibility threshold ... BBCE allows states to lift this threshold and phase benefits out more gradually, which lets households close to that threshold take higher-paying work and still benefit from SNAP.”

The proposed policy could have the negative effect of discouraging work by removing incentives for people to enter and stay in the labor force.

Eliminating BBCE could discourage struggling families from building modest savings and increase the level of bureaucracy in administering the program.

So if you want to do a good deed and make a public comment about the proposed policy, your message can be as simple as “Eliminating BBCE will push struggling families over a benefit cliff.”

Or “It’s a bad idea to discourage savings and asset building.”

Or “Why increase bureaucratic complexity? Keep it simple by keeping BBCE.” Or some combination of the above.

Then there’s this if you don’t want to overthink it: “It’s not nice to take away food from hungry people.”

And if you want to get biblical about it, there’s this verse from Isaiah: “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”

There are plenty more where that came from.

The public comment period ends Sept. 23. One easy way to put your two cents in is to visit the Food Research and Action Center’s website  and click on this link.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. And, yes, it was recycled from Goat Rope posts. But the public comment thing is important.)

July 30, 2019

A look at the science of evil

In fall 2001, I taught a sociology class at WVU-Tech. The semester had barely started when the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the world.

That prompted me to look at the social science of how and why people can be cruel to each other. A good resource was social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister’s 1997 study, “Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.”

According to Baumeister, “Evil requires the deliberate actions of one person, the suffering of another, and the perception or judgment of either the second person or an observer. Very few people see their own actions as evil ...”

Since evil is largely in the eye of the beholder, victims and perpetrators have vastly different perspectives on it. For the latter, it’s usually “not that big a deal,” while to the victim it’s a huge deal. Baumeister calls this difference the “magnitude gap,” and it’s one reason why acts of revenge are often out of proportion to the original offense. Violence is often a spiral, not a cycle.

One thing that keeps us from understanding evil and dealing with it is what he calls “the myth of pure evil,” which we pick up from sources such as myths, comic books, action movies, etc.

According to this, evil involves the intentional infliction of harm for the pleasure of doing it. Victims are all innocent and good, and perpetrators are all evil. Evil is always “the other, the enemy, the outsider, the out-group.”

One problem with this is that, in any given war or conflict, both sides see each other in terms of the myth. Perpetrators usually see themselves as victims.

According to Baumeister, “the myth of pure evil conceals the reciprocal causality of violence. By doing so, it probably increases the violence. The myth of pure evil depicts innocent victims fighting against gratuitously wicked, sadistic enemies. The myth encourages people to believe that they are good and will remain good no matter what, even if they perpetrate severe harm on their opponents. Thus, the myth of pure evil confers a kind of moral immunity on people who believe in it ... belief in the myth is itself one recipe for evil, because it allows people to justify violent and oppressive actions. It allows evil to masquerade as good.”

Baumeister identified four types of evil: instrumental, egotism/revenge, idealism and sadism. Fortunately, sadism — cruelty for the fun of it — is the rarest form. Most people don’t enjoy inflicting harm on others, although it gets easier with repetition. It appears to be an acquired taste, with some of the same mechanisms of addiction.

Far more common is instrumental evil, i.e., doing harm to gain other ends, such as money or power. Examples could include killing or hurting someone for money, organized crime, a government that mistreats people to keep power, etc.

His view of egotism and revenge challenges common assumptions. It’s often asserted that harm is committed by people with low self-esteem. He suggests, rather, that many violent individuals, groups, political movements and countries have high but fragile self-esteem and lash out violently whenever this is challenged:

“The people (or groups or countries) most prone to violence are the ones who are most susceptible to ego threats, especially those who have inflated, exalted opinions of themselves or whose normally high self-esteem does occasionally take a nosedive.”

Wounded egotism usually seeks a revenge that is entirely out of proportion to the original offense.

Then there’s the violence of idealism and true believers. As Bob Dylan said, “you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.” When people think they are on the side of good and their enemies are evil, they feel morally justified in using extreme violence and cruelty.

“Human nature inclines people to align themselves in groups that square off against each other, each group seeing itself as good and the other as bad. Group competition can evolve into brutal conflict in which each side sincerely sees itself as the good guys who need to take strong measures to defeat the forces of evil that oppose them.”

Evil doesn’t generally appear all at once in fully developed form. It starts with a loss of self- or social control. “Many instances of profound evil begin with a small, ambiguous act that crosses a fuzzy line and then escalates gradually into even greater levels of violence.”

For example, the Ku Klux Klan began with a group of bored young men seeking amusement by mischief and practical jokes. The Nazi holocaust came at the end of a long progression of gradually escalating abuses. Often, Nazi leaders would pause at each stage to gauge world reaction before escalating violence.

Groups can be especially dangerous, because, in them, “evil escalates as the members bring out one another’s worst impulses, lose track of individual responsibility and reinforce one another’s wavering faith in the broad justifications for what they are doing.”

There’s no magic bullet to make evil go away, but understanding it is a good first step, and Baumeister’s work is a good place to start. He argues that bystanders can have a huge effect and “a responsibility to protest evil, because it will grow unchecked if they do not ... the victims of evil and violence depend on bystanders to bear witness to what is happening and take a stand against it. It is the only way.”

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

July 29, 2019

What's at stake in the latest attack on food assistance

You may have heard that the Trump administration has proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that could result in taking away benefits from 3 million or more Americans.

Here's why it's bad: the proposed change eliminates "broad based categorical eligibility" (BBCE), which allows people who are eligible for other assistance programs (such as TANF or welfare, SSI or other programs) to be automatically eligible for SNAP.

Eliminating the BBCE creates a cliff effect in which people could experience drastic cuts in benefits when their living conditions modestly improve.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,

 SNAP supports work in part by phasing benefits down gradually — by only 24 to 36 cents for each dollar of increased earnings. But without BBCE, a family can lose substantial SNAP benefits from a small earnings increase that raises its gross income over SNAP’s eligibility threshold (130 percent of the federal poverty line, or $2,252 per month for a family of three in fiscal year 2019). BBCE allows states to lift this threshold and phase benefits out more gradually, which lets households close to that threshold take higher-paying work and still benefit from SNAP.
They also argue that eliminating BBCE could discourage struggling families from building modest savings and increase the level of bureaucracy in administering the program.

SOOOO....if you want to do a good deed and make a public comment about the proposed policy (click here for that),  your message can be as simple as "Eliminating BBCE will push struggling families over a benefit cliff." Or "It's a bad idea to discourage savings and asset building." Or "Why increase bureaucratic complexity? Keep it simple by keeping BBCE." Or some combination of the above.

Then there's this if you don't want to overthink it: it's not nice to take away food from hungry people.


July 27, 2019

Sounding the alarm on hunger

The Trump administration has proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka the old food stamps) that could take away basic food assistance from 3 million Americans. This is an administrative maneuver which clearly bypasses the will of both houses of Congress.

To fight this off, it's necessary for as many people as possible to a make their voice heard during the public comment period, which closes Sept. 23. Fortunately, there's an easy way to do this. All you have to do is click here and comment away.

To learn more specifics about what's wrong with doing that, click on this link from the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

July 23, 2019

Let them eat nothing

I don't know about you, but I just love it when billionaires try to take food away from hungry people. Over 3 million of them, to be exact. Here's what the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has to say about the Trump administration's latest stunt:
The Trump administration today issued a proposed rule that would take food assistance away from 3 million people by making them ineligible to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s first line of defense against hunger.
The proposed rule will particularly harm working families with children whose net incomes are below the poverty line, and families and seniors with even a small amount of savings.
This latest attack on struggling Americans once again sidesteps Congress by eliminating SNAP’s broad-based categorical eligibility option, which allows states to streamline the process for households with slightly higher incomes that still experience financial hardship to participate in SNAP. This option for states has been fully vetted by administrations and Congress for more than 20 years, and was most recently upheld in the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill.
By undercutting this option, the proposed rule will only fuel rates of hunger and food insecurity by taking food off the tables of working individuals and families, children, seniors, and people with disabilities. It will create a sicker and poorer nation by denying struggling households the food assistance they need for a healthy, productive life. It will put children’s health and learning at risk by removing their access to healthy school meals. It will also harm the economy, grocery retailers, and agricultural producers by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur local economic activity.
SNAP helps millions of Americans make ends meet. The Trump administration should be building on the successes of this proven program. Weakening SNAP only weakens our country.
FRAC encourages people to submit comments opposing the rule via its platform at FRAC.org. The 60-day public comment period will begin on July 24.

July 22, 2019

I knew things were bad but...

It takes a lot to surprise me when it comes to bad statistics about West Virginia, but I didn't see this coming: according  to the WV Department of Education, 10,522 public school students in the state are homeless. 

Recall that West Virginia is a small state population-wise and getting smaller every day. This means that 4 percent of students are living in a vehicle, on a relative or friend's couch or in a shelter. That would average out to one student in every class of 25 kids.

The counties with the highest numbers include:
* Jefferson County — 1,411 students, or 16 percent of students
* Kanawha County — 652 students, or 3 percent of students
* Clay County — 633 students, or 34 percent of students
* Mercer County — 588 students, or 7 percent of students
* Cabell County — 455 students, or 4 percent of students
According to officials, some of this may be due to the lingering effects of the 2016 floods, but opioids are probably a leading cause.

Needless to say, none of this came up in all the time wasted by the legislature in pushing for privatization, charter schools and education savings accounts.

This is another example of how public schools are expected to deal with problems they didn't create, even while some legislators undermine them.

July 18, 2019

Thinking about the other f word

There’s been a lot of interest in the f-word lately. Of course, I mean the seven-letter one. To wit, fascism.

According to Merriam Webster, it was the most searched word on the internet on election night in 2016. It came close to being the word of the year for 2016 but it was trumped, no pun intended, by “surreal.” In Feb. 2017, The Washington Post reported that fascism’s share of internet searches in the new year was already five times the level of 2015.

Last year, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who spent her early years in its shadow in Europe, published a book titled “Fascism: A Warning.”

It’s shown up in the news quite a bit lately.

No doubt the word gets kicked around inappropriately, often coming to define a fascist as anyone with whom one disagrees.

The word had a fairly innocent origin. During the Roman Republic, one of the more democratic governments in the ancient world, lictors or bodyguards of officials carried fasces, a bundle of rods tied around an axe blade as a symbol of legitimate authority.

The symbolism was powerful. A single rod could be easily broken, but not many joined together.

It survived as a non-fascist symbol long after the ancient world, showing up both in the reign of French King Louis XIV (1638-1715) and in the symbols of the French Revolution which overthrew his dynasty in the late 1700s. You can even find fasces behind the podium of the US House of Representatives, on the left and right and on the seal of the US Senate.

It acquired its modern connotations when adopted by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was originally a socialist before embracing authoritarianism, militarism, imperialism and extreme nationalism after World War I.

At first, Mussolini was more opportunist than ideologue. His initial platform called for women’s suffrage and social programs including greater representation of workers. However, those ideals soon faded as he reached an accommodation with traditional economic elites and crushed independent workers’ organizations.

Eventually the term was applied to other movements, most of which didn’t gain power. One notable exception, of course, was Germany, which would far eclipse fascist Italy in terms of power while it lasted.

Fascist movements often begin as a variety of populism, which can take many forms, some benign. Michael Kazin defined populism as “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class; view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic; and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.”

John B. Judis distinguished between the populism of the left and right. In his recent book “The Populist Explosion,” he suggested that:

“Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” Or some other group. You can pretty much fill in the blank.

(Side note: I’d personally prefer we retire the language of left and right when it comes to current politics. Those terms refer to which side supporters or opponents of the French monarchy sat on at the National Assembly in 1789, which isn’t exactly a burning issue these days.)

Still, one can have populism of the “right” without having fascism. And fascist movements that gain state power generally ditch the populist agenda as leaders reach understandings with conservative and business elites. The populist base of such movements generally get thrown under the proverbial bus. A classic example of this is Hitler’s 1934 purge of more radical Nazi supporters in what came to be known as “the night of the long knives.”

So what does the word mean mean these days? And does it matter?

One scholar who has researched the history exhaustively is Robert Paxton author of “The Anatomy of Fascism” (2004). He defined it as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

He saw the mobilizing passions of early stage fascism to also include the need for authority and “the closer integration of a purer community;” belief in superiority of the leader’s instinct over reason and logic; the beauty of violence and the will in pursuing the group’s aims; and the right of the chosen group to dominate others without restraint.

He saw the movement as including stages from their emergence to their establishment in the political system to gaining power to wielding it to a final stage of either radicalization or entropy. The good news is that while authoritarian regimes can last a long time, fascist ones don’t have much of a shelf life. So far.

Ever since fascist movements emerged in the first half of the 20th century, many Americans have asked themselves if it could happen here, a question that has been asked more frequently these days.

I think it’s possible but not inevitable. While this may be to be the closest this f-word has had to a moment in the sun in this country, I’m hoping it’s more of a flirtation than a long-term relationship.

Still, it might be good to recall the words of Pearl Buck, the only West Virginian (so far) to win the Nobel Prize for literature: “When good people in any country cease their vigilance and struggle, then evil men prevail.”

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

July 15, 2019

Words from the oracle

For the last few years, my mind has kept circling back to the cryptic ideas of Walter Benjamin, a radical and somewhat mystical Jewish philosopher who committed suicide when in the Pyrenees when it seemed like escape from Nazi-occupied France would be impossible.

It's weird that I keep going back there because I'm pretty sure I don't understand 90+ percent of what he says, but every now and then a line will jump out at me and stop me in my tracks.

I have two quotes from him today. I can't find the original source for this one but here goes:
"Behind every fascism there is a failed revolution."
I take that to mean that when the positive movements of life are defeated and thwarted, the door opens for darker journeys. I've seen that happen over the course of my life.

Then there's this thought about the nature of social change:
“Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” 
In any case, I'm not crazy about the train ride we're on now.

July 09, 2019

Just don't call it normal

I’ve often heard that if you slowly heat the water in which a frog is sitting, it won’t notice anything until it’s too late.

I like frogs, so please don’t try that at home. But I think there is at least a metaphorical truth there. Sometimes we don’t notice how much things change until it’s too late. And we sometimes tend to accept unacceptable things as “the new normal.”

As one of Dostoevsky’s characters observed in “Crime and Punishment,” “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel.”

I think the mere fact that many Americans are debating the meaning of the term “concentration camp” in the context of the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant and refugee children is a sign that things are not cool.

Whatever term one might prefer for these facilities, they should not become the new normal and we shouldn’t get used to it.

The AP recently reported that “A traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 infants, children and teens locked up for up to 27 days without adequate food, water and sanitation, according to a legal team that interviewed dozens of children at a Border Patrol station in Texas.”

In the Homestead detention center near Miami, around 3,000 migrant or refugee children, most of whom came to the U.S. fleeing violence and poverty and hoping to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum, have been separated from their families. They live in prison-like conditions, sometimes sleeping in dorms that can hold up to 250 kids. They can’t leave the compound and are closely monitored by guards. A strict no-hugging policy is in effect, even between siblings.

So what do you call places like that?

I understand the outrage some people expressed when they heard the term “concentration camp” applied to current U.S. policy. When most people, myself included, hear those words, the first image that comes to mind are the Nazi death camps where millions of Jews, Soviet citizens and POWs, gays and lesbians, Romani, political enemies and other conquered or “inferior” people were exterminated.

Obviously, it would be wrong to equate conditions in migrant detention facilities, however deplorable, with vast industrialized mass killing facilities.

But concentration camps have a history that predates the Holocaust and, while death camps are a type of concentration camp, not all concentration camps were designed with the explicit purpose of mass murder, even though most have caused mass suffering and deaths were common results.

According to Merriam-Webster, part of the definition of concentration camp includes “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard ... .”

One could well argue that the precursors to modern concentration camps could be found in the ways that indigenous peoples were displaced and crowded together into confined spaces or in the treatment of African slaves. Slave ships in the “Middle Passage” have been referred to as “floating concentration camps.”

In the modern sense of the term, concentration camps first showed up in the Cuban struggle for independence in the late 1800s. Spanish general Valeriano Weyler implemented a “reconcentration policy” which ordered rural residents to report to detention centers within eight days or else face execution. Conditions in the camps were as bad as you’d expect, with scarce food, bad housing and unsanitary conditions. Hunger and disease caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The U.S. intervened in that conflict in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Ironically, however, the U.S. wound up establishing similar camps in the Philippines after acquiring the islands from Spain to keep rebellious and independence-seeking islanders in check. One U.S. Army officer recoiled from the site of one such camp, describing it as “some suburb of hell.”

According to the Smithsonian magazine, during the Boer War in southern Africa in the early days of the 20th century, British soldiers rounded up 200,000 Dutch-descended Boers and Africans into concentration camps (by that name) surrounded by barbed wire. Deaths in the camps far outstripped combat deaths.

By the time of the First World War, concentration camps had become an established practice in many locations. The stage was set for worse things to come.

One of the more shameful events in mid-20th century America was the forced detention of over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were U.S. citizens, in camps in the western US after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

The sordid history of such “suburbs of hell” has been thoroughly explored in the recent book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer. She came up with some interesting characteristics of such places:

“A concentration camp exists wherever a government holds groups of civilians outside the normal legal process — sometimes to segregate people considered foreigner or outsiders, sometimes to punish.”

“If prisons are meant for suspects convicted of crimes after a trial, a concentration camp holds those who, most often, had no real trial at all.”

“Concentration camps house civilians rather than combatants ... . Detainees are typically held because of their racial, cultural, religious or political identity, not because of any prosecutible offense — though some states have remedied this flaw by making legal existence next to impossible.”

Given all that history and controversy, what words should be used to describe places today where large numbers of children who have committed no crime are detained and traumatized in our name?

I think I’m going to keep it simple and stick with unacceptable.

July 04, 2019

Happy 4th?

Tanks in the capitol and detention camps at the border—including special camps for kids. Might this be the time to fly the flag upside down as a symbol of distress?

July 03, 2019

Mini-rant for the 4th of July

Well, we're approaching another Independence Day celebration. This is, however, the first one in my memory that involves tanks on display and detention camps for kids. One can only wonder what'll happen next.

July 01, 2019

A tweet-sized rant

The latest bad news to break from the US border (that would be the one about the racist and misogynistic  Facebook group set up by past and current border patron agents in case another story just as bad breaks in the meantime) reminds me of a quote attributed to poet Maya Angelou:

"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."

I believe. Although it's not the first time.

June 28, 2019

Unforced error or deliberate double cross?

The most infuriating thing about the 2019 special session of the WV legislature, which rammed through charter schools and other unwanted education policies, was that it only happened due to the random antics of WV Governor Jim Justice.

On several occasions over the last year, Justice voiced his opposition to charter schools and other nasty aspects of the ominous omnibus bills that were proposed. All he had to do to keep those things from happening was, literally,  nothing.

Had he done literally nothing, the proposals that were defeated in the regular session would go back to wherever bad ideas live until the 2020 regular session. Then there would be time for bills to work their way through the normal legislative process, with plenty of time for committee meetings, debate and amendments.  During an election year.

But noooooo.

Instead, he called for a special session on "education betterment." This allowed foes of public education to short circuit the process and ram bad ideas through. It's a terrible way to make public policy and a betray of the best principles of old-school conservatism, which are all about cautious approaches to change.

Anyone could have seen that coming.

It didn't have to be that way.

The next best thing to do is organize and educate to make sure that the people who made this happen own it. All of it.

June 26, 2019

Quick question (and more of a tweet)

Is this the latest embarrassment to West Virginia to appear in the media lately or have I missed one? Or more?

It's so hard to keep up these days...

June 21, 2019

Doing the math

If you're trying to calculate the butcher's bill from the WV Legislature's special session on education--which isn't over yet--WVEA has put together a good summary. Yes, we lost on charter schools, although the house version doesn't permit an unlimited number.

But the massive effort by teachers, service workers, students, parents, and community members to fight off the worst changes of senate bill did a lot of damage control. Punitive anti-strike provisions were taken out. Over the last year, people have still fought off the so-called "paycheck protection" provision.

Other not terrible provisions include a pay raise for teachers and school support workers, some increase in faculty, an increase in personal days from three to four, a sick leave bonus, and increase in the faculty senate allotment to $300 per teacher.

I think all eyes need to be on the senate to make sure no funny business goes on.There will be a huge need to raise awareness over the next year to prepare for the next session, not to mention the 2020 elections. Everyone knows by now that elections have consequences.

June 14, 2019

A WV art form

I'm a bit behind in blogging (and I apologize for the annoying alliteration), but must call attention to an event earlier this week when Gov. Justice and representatives of extractive industries called a press conference to protest that old trope "the war on coal."

Here's coverage from the Gazette-Mail and WV MetroNews.

I get it. I mean, it's worked so well for them in the past, politically and economically.

This time the villain isn't a black man with an unusual name but rather rootless cosmopolitan New York financier Michael Bloomberg (do I hear another dog whistle going off?--that worked really well for them in the past as well.) This "limousine liberal" pledged to spend $500 million to put coal power plants out of business by 2030 in an effort to reduce the effects of climate change.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the short term profits of our rulers vastly outweighs the future of life on earth in terms of importance.

In any event, it had all the ingredients of a good old WV ruling class hissy fit, including a denial of climate change, the denunciation of  an "Other" from out of state and the portrayal of WV's colonial overlords as benefactors.

Here's my take: if they're that worried about it, they have a remedy within reach. $500 million is pretty close to the amount of regressive tax cuts business groups and the wealthy enjoy each year.

June 10, 2019

Punishing success and the politics of revenge

If you want to know what revenge looks like, you don’t have to look much further than the latest version of the “ominous omnibus” education bill passed by the West Virginia Senate. It seems to me that they want to make an example of what can happen to working people when they dare to fight back — especially if they dare to win.

After all, the 2018 strike by teachers and service workers set off a wave of action by school workers across the country and beyond. Crushing the movement here would send another powerful message.

And maybe some people want to make sure kids in West Virginia grow up without ever seeing people stand together to effect positive change.

Along with some harmless provisions, like a raise for teachers and a boost for mental health, the Senate bill includes measures almost universally unpopular among (non-astroturf) West Virginia stakeholders — like charter schools, which are often run as private schools paid for with public money.

A separate bill rolls in the Trojan horse of education savings accounts, another push towards privatization. Both of those were opposed by 88 percent of people at numerous forums around the state.

On top of that, the bill explicitly states that public employees don’t have the right to strike, that striking could be grounds for termination, that days missed due to strikes will not be compensated and that county superintendents will not be allowed to close schools.

This is the third wave in series of attacks on workers and the organizations that represent them, each targeting a different group.

In the first wave, skilled workers in the building trades took a hit when the state’s prevailing wage law was repealed. The repeal promised taxpayer savings that, according to some reports, never materialized, while depressing wages, increasing injuries and reducing the number of people in apprenticeship programs.

In the second wave, other private-sector workers covered by collective bargaining agreements took their hit with the passage of the misnamed “right to work” law, which is more accurately “right to work for less.” This was challenged in court and is likely to go before the West Virginia Supreme Court soon.

That law undermines industrial democracy by requiring unions to represent all workers, including those who receive the benefits of union membership — typically better wages, benefits and working conditions— without paying dues.

Previously, union membership was determined by democratic elections: if most eligible workers voted in favor of union representation, all were covered. Likewise, if a majority wanted to decertify the union, they could vote on that as well. That’s the way elections work. If “right to work for less” is upheld in court, you can expect to see living standards for working families, union and non-union, decline even more.

Now public employees, particularly teachers and school support workers, are the target. They don’t have collective bargaining rights in West Virginia. If they did, they would have other means for resolving disputes beside work stoppages.

Teachers and support workers in West Virginia have only engaged in work stoppages as a last resort. It’s a rare measure, happening only three times in 156 years, and then only when they feel like they’ve been pushed to the wall. And it’s a sure thing that if they didn’t strike during the last two years, they would have been totally ignored.

As for the legal status of such work stoppages, there’s a saying that there are no illegal strikes, only unsuccessful ones. Since laws are generally made by those with wealth and power, actions that challenge their power are often illegal. Until they’re not. The case of Rosa Parks comes to mind, but examples could be multiplied. It’s always been that way.

My favorite response to the proposed legislation came from Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, an organization that from bitter experience knows a thing or two about union busting and how to fight it. His statement said in part, “Teachers and school support personnel already do not have the right to strike in West Virginia, but they ignored that and demonstrated the power of solidarity in each of the last two years. Their fight for better education for our kids remains an inspiration to education professionals across the nation, and the UMWA was proud to stand with them.

“Let me make this very clear: If our state’s education workers believe they need to take to the streets once again, we will be there with them. And if someone comes to arrest them, they will have to go through us first.”

If it does come to that, I’d like to think they’d have to go through some of the rest of us, as well.

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

June 04, 2019

Mine Workers pledge solidarity with teachers, school workers

In case you missed it, below is a statement from United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts about the WV senate majority's attack on teachers and school support workers (I italilcized my favorite part):
“Once again, the Republican leadership in the West Virginia State Senate have demonstrated that they are mere tools of the radical out-of-state billionaires who pull their puppet strings. No one who actually cares about West Virginia schools, children and families would ever propose such meaningless nonsense, let alone codify it in legislation.
“Teachers and school support personnel already do not have the right to strike in West Virginia, but they ignored that and demonstrated the power of solidarity in each of the last two years. Their fight for better education for our kids remains an inspiration to education professionals across the nation, and the UMWA was proud to stand with them.
“From the Baldwin-Felts thugs at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek to Sherriff Chafin at Blair Mountain to Don Blankenship at Massey Energy, the UMWA has a long history of standing up to union-busting bullies in West Virginia. Mitch Carmicheal and his minions in the Senate are no different, and we will never back down to their kind.
Let me make this very clear: If our state’s education workers believe they need to take to the streets once again, we will be there with them. And if someone comes to arrest them, they will have to go through us first.”​

June 02, 2019

Thoughts on strikes

This could be a tweet. In fact it is, but I think it's worth thinking about these days, especially in West Virginia:

Apropos of nothing, I recently heard someone say "there's no such thing as an illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one." Same goes with other "illegal"events...like the American Revolution #55strong #55United #RedForEd

May 30, 2019

Another attack on public education

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce does a great job of representing the economic interests of its members. It can kill bills with a frown and win without even showing up. That’s been true with both Democratic and Republican majorities.

Of course, this is probably easier to do when one represents the power of organized money. However, those interests aren’t necessarily the same as those of ordinary West Virginians, especially working people, kids, families and those just trying to get by.

For example, the Chamber supported the repeal of a prevailing wage policy for building trade workers on state construction jobs, claiming it would save taxpayers money.

It didn’t.

In fact, a new report suggests that repealing prevailing wage lowered wages for local workers, reduced the number of apprenticeships that open the way to middle-class careers and gave more contracts to out-of- state contractors. On-the-job injuries have gone up by 26 percent since the repeal.

Since 2007, the Chamber supported major business tax cuts on the grounds they’d help create jobs. All told, various state tax cuts and credits favoring business groups or the wealthiest West Virginians have reduced state revenues by $478 million per year. That’s more than enough to lift all West Virginia families above the poverty line. Or to provide free in-state tuition to our colleges and universities. Or fix PEIA. Or deal with students’ mental health issues. Or whatever.

Here’s the kicker: we have fewer jobs now than we did in 2007. And West Virginians are earning less in constant dollars. But some folks did pretty well.

For reasons like that, I suspect the interests of the Chamber might not be identical with those of the 270,000 or so students in the state’s public schools.

The Chamber recently released its report on education reform in West Virginia, which not surprisingly highlights the shortcomings of the school system, supports charter schools (which can function as basically unaccountable private schools paid for with public money) and education savings accounts.

It’s a good strategy. Undermining support for and the legitimacy of public institutions has opened doors more than once to profiting at public expense and eventual privatization.

The report is mostly about money and standardized tests. The intent seems to be to demonstrate that schools are failing despite generous funding.

One thing the report doesn’t do is analyze is the effect of poverty and inequality on educational performance, despite the fact that one in four West Virginia children live in poverty and that we all live in a time of runaway inequality.

(If I was them, I’d probably try to avoid that subject too; it helps avoid certain unpleasant conversations and conclusions.)

The word poverty occurs as a blip four times in the report with no in-depth discussion.

But, as Helen Ladd demonstrated in an article on the connection between poverty and education in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, “Study after study has demonstrated that children from disadvantaged households perform less well in school on average than those from more advantaged households.”

We don’t have to look far to see how poverty can impact standardized measures of educational success. Sean O’Leary of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy recently pointed out the contrasts between George Washington and Riverside high schools in Kanawha County.

GW’s math, reading and science proficiency rates “are 30, 23, and 36 percentage points higher respectively, than Riverside High School’s scores. So what is the difference between the two schools? Only 20 percent of George Washington’s students are eligible for free/reduced lunches, compared to nearly 40 percent for Riverside. Riverside has nearly twice as many low-income students as George Washington. Two schools in the same district with the same policies, and same funding source, with vastly different educational outcomes.

Given all that, how do you expect students in the fourth poorest state in the nation to compare with more affluent states?

Much of the discussion in the Chamber report revolves around numbers from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), which is mentioned 24 times. NAEP data is sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card.” But, as the Urban Institute argues, “comparing NAEP scores assumes that states serve the same students — and we know they don’t.”

The Urban Institute argues that a more accurate way to talk about NAEP performance is to “use adjusted NAEP scores that account for demographic differences across students in each state.” These adjusted scores allow for students to be compared with those in similar circumstances.

(A full list of those factors includes gender, race and ethnicity, eligibility for free or reduced lunch, English proficiency, special education, age, whether the student was given an accommodation on the NAEP exam, whether the student has various amenities in the home — computer, internet, own room, dishwasher and clothes dryer — the number of books in the home, the language spoken in the home, and the family structure.)

If you adjust for these factors that impact learning and compare our students with others in similar conditions, for example, West Virginia’s fourth-grade math scores rise from 37th to 11th.

Maybe something else is broken ...

There are powerful forces at work in West Virginia to hold public schools responsible for problems they didn’t create. But maybe, it might be more productive to address the real issues that are holding back West Virginia’s kids and communities — even if some people would rather avoid the issue.

A long time ago, Henry David Thoreau observed that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

Maybe it’s time to change that.

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

May 28, 2019

Oh good...not

So now WV senate president Mitch Carmichael wants to push a massive overhaul of WV education policy through the chamber in one day. Golly, what could possibly go wrong?

The Gazette-Mail's statehouse reporter Phil Kabler had this to say in a tweet:
"That Senate leadership is pushing to pass new version of omnibus education bill in one day w/o the House in session seems to add credence to rumor they intend to pass the bill and then adjourn sine die, leaving the House to either concur or allow bill (w/ teacher pay) to die."
The House has a different plan, dividing into four committees to consider different bills.

To state the obvious, and to echo what many education workers have said, this kind of thing should not be rammed through in a special session, whether of one day or longer. Any school reform bills should go through the regular, deliberative process during the next regular session of the legislature.







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?

May 17, 2019

Time to stop playing games with public education

The results are in.

The West Virginia Department of Education recently sought the input of students, teachers and other school workers, parents and caregivers and other stakeholders about how they wanted to improve education in the state. Over 20,000 people participated.

The goal was to provide information for legislators to consider before the coming special session on education.

The results of the input from public forums, an online survey, and comment cards were published in a 33-page summary titled “West Virginia’s Voice.”

The top priorities are pretty much what you’d expect — unless you’re paid to think otherwise.

Here are the greatest hits:

*There was overwhelming support for increased compensation for teachers and school workers, at a rate of 77 percent of survey respondents and 95 percent for comment cards from forum attendees.

*There’s strong support for public school reforms, such as innovation zones and more flexibility BUT that doesn’t translate into support for charter schools, which basically work like publicly funded private schools: 88 percent of forum respondents were opposed to charter schools, while only six percent supported them.

*If charter schools are unpopular, so are education savings accounts, which would give parents tax dollars for non-public education — by another majority of 88 percent.

*One issue that showed up in different ways in the report was mental health and emotional support for students. The idea of embedding social services in schools was supported by 75 percent of survey respondents and 93 percent of those who submitted comments.

High levels of support were also expressed for increasing the number of student support personnel (counselors, psychologists, and/or social workers).

Educators were also interested in training on how to deal with issues related to trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which is only to be expected given the state’s addiction crisis and persistent child poverty. Tellingly, many educators expressed the need for help addressing the secondary trauma they are experiencing.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which was created by congress in 2000, “Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events. For therapists, child welfare workers, case managers, and other helping professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life.”

I’m sure that would be the situation experienced pretty much daily by most public school teachers in West Virginia.

While we’re at it, despite the claims of astroturf groups funded by out of state billionaires that West Virginia’s schools are “broken,” 76 percent of public school parents agree or strongly agree that they are satisfied with their child’s school.

My suggestion is that those who want to fix broken things might do better to start with a 100-plus year old colonial economy that has sucked out wealth and resources and left behind poverty, despair, addiction, poor health, and environmental degradation. Or political priorities that have favored unproductive corporate tax cuts over investing adequately in children and families.

Those problems didn’t start in our public schools, although education workers seem to be magically expected to fix them all. It’s no wonder that many state teachers are feeling disrespected and demoralized.

I don’t always agree with conservative commentator Hoppy Kercheval, but I think he was right to say in a recent commentary that “The value we place on public education and teachers is not equal to the outcomes we expect.”

It’s time to stop playing games with public education and bring those values and expectations into alignment.

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

May 14, 2019

Not all bad

There were some rough and embarrassing moments in the last legislative session, but some good things came out of it.

One that surprised me was the passage of Senate Bill 564, which raised the Medicaid eligibility threshold for pregnant women to 300 percent above the federal poverty level. The bill also provides coverage for the mother for 60 days after birth.

That’s a big deal for several reasons. Obviously, it can improve the health of both the mother and child. More importantly, it can significantly reduce the chances of infant and maternal mortality. Unfortunately, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. has been increasing.

According to Dr. Jessie Ice of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the U.S. has the highest MMR level among advanced industrialized nations. It’s one of only eight countries where the MMR is actually increasing — and it’s the only industrialized nation in that group. Globally, MMRs have declined by 44 percent between 1990 and 2015.

Incredibly, American women today are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their mothers were. According to Ice, “The average age a woman gives birth in the United States for the first time is a little over 26 years old. A 26-year-old giving birth in 2014 would face an MMR of 18 out of 100,000, while her mother — 26 years prior — was faced with an MMR of 9.4 out of 100,000.”

American women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy- related issues than Canadian women and six times more likely to die than Scandinavian women.

According to Amnesty International, American women living in low income areas are twice as likely to die than those from more affluent communities. African-American women are three to four times more likely to die than white women.

Something is wrong with this picture, but access to health care during and after pregnancy can help reverse the trend. According to an analysis by several MMR review committees, 63 percent of deaths could have been prevented with access to health care.

It’s hard to estimate how many West Virginia women will benefit from this legislation, but 535 mothers gave birth without health insurance last year.

West Virginia has made some major progress in health care over the last few years. Thanks to Medicaid and CHIP, the state is a national leader in insuring kids. Then-Gov. Tomblin’s decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act is now bringing coverage — including treatment for addiction — to 160,000 state residents. Covering more pregnant women is another step in the right direction.

In the future, the Legislature should consider extending postpartum Medicaid coverage to at least one year since not all pregnancy-related physical or mental health issues emerge in the first 60 days. Throw in universal access to voluntary in-home family education or home visiting programs for the first two years after birth and we could go far in preventing all kinds of problems and improving outcomes for kids and families for generations to come.

West Virginia is losing population, especially young parents and children. We could all benefit from taking better care of the kids we have and making the state a great place to live and raise a family.

May 10, 2019

Golly, who could have seen this coming?

Remember all the hype about President Obama's "war on coal" and how Prince Joffrey President Trump would make coal great again?

This is from an AP report:
U.S. demand for coal to generate electricity will continue its slide in coming months despite efforts by the Trump administration to prop up the struggling industry, federal officials said Thursday.
Renewable energy sources are expected to fill much of the gap left by coal's decline, according to the Energy Information Administration...
Under President Donald Trump, officials have sought to ease coal plant regulations and mining restrictions. But after production briefly bumped up in the year after Trump took office, almost all coal mining states are now experiencing production declines.
This summer, coal's share of energy production is expected to be 25 percent, down by around half over the last 10 years. And it's market driven.

Maybe we should sacrifice another generation or two of West Virginians to the industry just to make sure?

May 08, 2019

Getting priorities right for WV's young people

“This could be a really beautiful state, if we fix it.”

Those words were spoken by a young man at a juvenile day report center in Southern West Virginia. They sum up the results of over 100 interviews and surveys of young people conducted over the past year about mental health issues.

They say a lot about how things are now and how they could be.

It’s never easy to come of age — and living in West Virginia has always had its challenges. But today, many young West Virginians are facing a toxic brew of obstacles, from the addiction crisis to the explosive growth of foster care placement to a changing economy to new technology and social media. Then there are the old problems of persistent poverty and misplaced priorities.

Over the past year or so, my co-workers and I conducted a statewide listening project on young people and mental health issues as part of our work with the American Friends Service Committee. We were motivated, in part, by disappointment at the lack of action of our Legislature to address these issues over the past several years. Some of those who helped conduct interviews were themselves high school students concerned about these issues and frustrated by inaction.

It wasn’t a randomized scientific survey, but we did try to interview young people who varied in age, geographic location, race, ethnicity, social class and sexual orientation. We also spoke with adults who worked with them. The most surprising finding was strong agreement on several key points:

*Young people here face serious and multiple stressors, and many are dealing with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues and trauma. “There’s no point trying to talk to somebody who doesn’t understand.”

*Things have gotten worse. Stressors identified included addiction, economic hard times, family stability, poverty, overexposure to social media, bullying and various types of discrimination. “It makes you give up hope. You feel like there is nothing in the world that can change the way things are.”

*Many young people with undiagnosed mental health and trauma issues might wind up facing disciplinary proceedings, such as suspension, out-of-home placement or confinement, or they might wind up engaging in destructive decisions. “We need to figure out the root of the problem, instead of shipping them away. Is it drugs? Bullying? Abuse?”

* Existing systems are not prepared to deal with the situation. “I think more money should be spent on counseling for young people. More community involvement would also be good. Instead of people thinking, ‘oh poor thing,’ people should be thinking ‘what can I do to help this person?’”

*Something needs to be done. “We need more people who care.”

Strange to say, nobody asked for charter schools or education savings accounts or the privatization of public education.

It’s no surprise to me that those same themes showed up in the education forums conducted around the state by the West Virginia Department of Education, in which nearly 2,000 stakeholders participated.

Early in April, state schools Superintendent Steven Paine told WV MetroNews, “Overwhelmingly, there was almost unanimous support for social, emotional supports for students. In other words, recognizing that kids are coming from some very, very difficult backgrounds and some of those needs need to be met before we can address their academic needs. That’s probably the one that stood out the most to me.”

There are several policies the Legislature could enact that might help with this situation. Obviously, one step would be to increase the number of mental health professionals who work in schools. With that investment, it would be easier to assess and address issues before a student is suspended or sent to court.

A worthy long-term goal for our state would be to ensure that students in danger of entering the juvenile justice system are assessed and referred to community-based programs whenever possible and appropriate.

Another could be creating a task force to address juvenile mental health and trauma-related issues. West Virginia has already created strategic plans to address chronic diseases, such as asthma and diabetes. These help stakeholders tackle issues by assessing needed services, setting goals, and assigning responsibilities.

Such a task force could not only identify unmet needs but also highlight success stories and best practices that could be replicated elsewhere.

To state the obvious, we’re losing a lot of young people in the state, but many of those who remain have serious, unmet needs. When the Legislature goes back into special session, I hope they don’t use kids as a political football, but, instead, deal with the real problems.

This really could be a beautiful state, if we fix it.

(This ran as an op-ed in last week's Charleston Gazette-Mail)

May 01, 2019

Born in the USA


Around the world but not here so much (yet), May 1 is celebrated as International Workers' Day. Ironically the roots of this observance began right here in the USA. A major struggle in much of the 19th and 20th century has been to reduce the hours of the working day, which could run as long as 14 hours or more in the early days of the industrial revolution.

A slogan of the movement was "eight hours for work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours for what we will."

Trade unionists in Chicago declared a strike for the eight hour day on May 1, 1886. One May 4, as police attempted to disperse a protesting crowd of workers at Haymarket Square, an unknown person threw a bomb which killed several police officers. The remaining police in turn fired at the crowd, killing four.

The bomber was never brought to justice. The only thing most historians agree on is that the eight people arrested and sentenced for the bombing weren't the guilty parties, several of whom weren't even there at the time. Of these, four were eventually executed. They are known as the "Haymarket martyrs."

The struggle to limit the working day didn't end there and was eventually won for many US workers by trade union organization and by the political reforms in the New Deal era and beyond, although some laws exempted protections for some of the most exploited workers, such as farm and domestic laborers.

Like everything else in the history of the struggle of working people for basic human justice, the fight goes on. In fact, as new forms of automation enter the traditional workplace, it may take new forms, such as limiting reducing working hours in order to share the available work.

The fight has always been about more than wages, hours and working conditions, as important as these are. It's also been about the need for culture, rest, leisure, education and dignity.

Lately, this hasn't been going so well, as you may have noticed. But it's not over yet.

(This is a from an earlier May Day post here a couple years ago.)

April 30, 2019

WV teachers and school workers brace for round three


West Virginia teachers and schools support workers have won two major victories over the last year or so.The successful 2018 strike help set off a wave of similar rebellions around the country, and the dominoes are still falling.

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Eric Blanc, author of the new book Red State Revolt: The Teachers' Strikes and Working-class Politics. Blanc was in West Virginia at the time of the 2018 strike and has followed the wave around the country. It was nice to hear how great the reputation of WV school workers is around the country.

I'm starting to get anxious about round three, which will be the special session of the legislature that could begin on May 22. This Metro News article highlights some of the issues. It's not clear how much of SB 451, the bad old "ominous omnibus" bill will be brought back. During many hearings around the state, stakeholders called for more mental health services, small class sizes and such.

Aside from outside astroturf groups, there has been no groundswell in support of privatization.

Still, I think a lot will depend on how teachers, school service workers and their allies stay engaged on this one. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”

April 24, 2019

Rat cage or rat park?

Like many people in West Virginia today, I’ve been thinking, listening, talking and reading a lot about issues of addiction and recovery.

Along the way, I’ve been struck by some interesting research that suggests there’s a lot more to it than the effect of certain chemical molecules on the brain. There’s a social dimension that could well be decisive in overcoming this crisis.

An amazing example of how social conditions affect addiction was found in the Vietnam War era. As the war continued, drug use — particularly heroin — became something of an epidemic among soldiers serving there.

That wasn’t surprising, considering the realities they faced.

According to some research, as many as 35 percent of soldiers had tried heroin at least once, and 20 percent were fully addicted.

At the time, Connecticut Sen. Robert Steel said after visiting the war zone, “The soldier going to South Vietnam today runs a far greater risk of becoming a heroin addict than a combat casualty.”

Obviously, many people were concerned about what would happen when these veterans returned to their communities. But something surprising happened when they got home. Fully 95 percent of veterans with addictions stopped using and never relapsed.

How could this be? Author Dan Baum summed it up pretty well: “Take a man out of a pestilential jungle where people he can’t see are trying to kill him for reasons he doesn’t understand, and — surprise! — his need to shoot smack goes away.”

To state the obvious, the situations in which people live have a lot to do with their life choices, including those related to addiction and recovery.

I think we could learn a lot from a fascinating experiment conduced by researcher Bruce Alexander with rats under laboratory conditions.

It was long known that, if you put a rat in a cage and gave it unlimited access to addictive drugs, it would hit the drugs pretty hard, often to the point of death.

Alexander decided to try something a little different. As Johann Hari explains in his book “Chasing the Scream”:

“With a few of his colleagues, he built two sets of homes for laboratory rats. In the first home, they lived as they had in the original experiments, in solitary confinement, isolated except for their fix. But then he built a second home: a paradise for rats. Within its plywood walls, it contained everything a rat could want—there were wheels and colored balls and the best food, and other rats to hang out with and have sex with.”

He called the second place Rat Park.

The rats in the isolated cage used up to 25 milligrams of morphine a day. The rats in Rat Park used less than 5 milligrams, despite having a 24-hour supply of the drug.

In a variation on the experiment, he took addicted rats who had been in isolation and placed them in Rat Park. In a short time, they stopped using morphine.

It’s probably not just a rat thing.

According to Alexander, “When I talk to addicted people, whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, internet use, sex, or anything else, I encounter human beings who really do not have a viable social or cultural life. They use their addictions as a way of coping with their dislocation: as an escape, a pain killer, or a kind of substitute for a full life. Maybe our fragmented, mobile, ever-changing modern society has produced social and cultural isolation in very large numbers of people, even though their cages are invisible.”

He argues that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, hypercompetitive, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel socially and culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction to drugs or any of a thousand other habits and pursuits because addiction allows them to escape from their feelings, to deaden their senses and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”

It’s probably no accident that waves of addiction seem to hit populations going through extreme stress, hard economic times and declining community and social capital.

While there is an urgent need for other forms of prevention, intervention and treatment, it’s pretty clear that we could take a lesson from our friends the rats, re-weave our broken connections and re-dedicate ourselves to constructing a society worthy of human beings.

Less cage. More park.

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

April 20, 2019

Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell



This was originally posted here in 2013, with a few updates:

The time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is an interesting part of the traditional Christian calendar. It symbolized the only day of the year in which Christ is thought of as being dead. By tradition, it is also the only day of the year in which the Holy Eucharist is not celebrated (except in cases of emergencies).

In Christian tradition, lots of interesting legends developed around this day. Some passages in the New Testament suggest that Jesus descended to the realms of the dead to bring liberation to captive spirits. Apocryphal gospels from the second and third centuries elaborated this theme. In the late classical and medieval period, legends bloomed about the "Harrowing of Hell" in which the spirit of Jesus trashed the place while freeing the souls of the virtuous. In Dante's Inferno, both the architecture and geography of Hell show the aftershocks of that cataclysmic event nearly 1300 years later.

I love the image of captive spirits who have long ago given up hope being suddenly and unexpectedly rescued by a power far greater than themselves or the forces that hold them down. We could use a good bit more of that.



Right now.