May 26, 2020

Protecting vulnerable workers

When it comes to amateur epidemiology these days, I think there are two kinds of people: those who know they’re not experts and those who don’t.

I’m in the former category.

Like millions of Americans and people around the world, I’d like for things to get back to some kind of normal, preferably a better normal than we had before. I miss seeing people face to face, going to libraries, social and family gatherings, visiting Taylor Books in search of the ever-elusive no-bake cookie, eating out, contact sports and all that.

But I don’t want a rushed return to “normal” if it means another spike in COVID-19 infections and fatalities, which is inevitable if restrictions are lifted too soon.

In Georgia, for example, moves to reopen led to a more than 40% spike in the coronavirus incidence rate, which represents the number of infections per 100,000 people, between April 21 and May 2. For some, that will mean death.

The Texas Tribune reported on May 14 the largest daily increase in COVID-19 infections and fatalities since the outbreak began, with 1,448 infections and 58 deaths. That state began the reopening process on April 17.

A reopening spike would hit West Virginia particularly hard. As has been widely reported, the Kaiser Family Fund found that we have the highest share of adults at risk of serious illness if infected, at the rate of 51% compared to a national average of 41%. That includes around 32% of people between ages 18 and 64, the prime working years.

One area that demands a careful approach is dealing with unemployment insurance. As of this writing, 143,149 West Virginians have filed for unemployment insurance since the outbreak. Some of those who are unemployed have compromised immune systems or live with someone who does. As things now stand, when their employers open, they will have to choose between risking health and life or losing unemployment benefits. Many of those who would have to make that decision are low-wage workers, with a disproportionate representation of women and African Americans.

Currently, immunocompromised people can be exempt from this dilemma with a doctor’s excuse. However, that could be a problem for people who are self-quarantining for health reasons — and for the estimated 60,000 West Virginians who have lost health insurance during the crisis or the more than 120,000 who didn’t have health coverage to start with.

According to federal Department of Labor guidelines, “Federal law would permit a state to determine whether the separation [from employment due to the outbreak] here is a quit or a discharge and whether the circumstances are allowable under the state’s good cause/just cause provisions. If permitted under the state’s good cause/just cause provision, states should consider how they will adjudicate the reasonableness of an individual’s separation for reasonable risk of exposure. One such factor could be considering if the individual is in a population that is particularly susceptible to COVID-19.”

In general, I think the Justice administration has done a good job of dealing with the outbreak. But I respectfully suggest that giving this matter more consideration isn’t a matter of playing politics or keeping people on unemployment forever. It’s about looking out for the lives of West Virginia’s working families.

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

May 21, 2020

High water: life lessons from the VFD

Don't even think about it

The endless rain this week has reminded me of  some life lessons I learned in my short and inglorious career on my hometown volunteer fire department, which was often kind of a flood department. Here goes:

*DO NOT try to drive through water;

*Candles are evil;

*4 wheelers want to kill you; and

*Try before you pry.

Most of these should be pretty obvious, but the last one may require some unpacking. A lot of the gear of firefighting is about forcing entry into a burning building or a wrecked vehicle--and it can be really cool to use. But sometimes you can just open the door...

May 19, 2020

100 years ago today

Today is the 100th anniversary of what has become known to history as the Matewan Massacre,a key battle in the West Virginia Mine Wars. It happened in the context of miners trying to unionize and getting evicted from company housing, brutalized by private mine guards, and worse.

Usually in such situations, local law enforcement would be squarely on the side of the coal companies, but that didn't happen this time. Sid Hatfield, chief of police of the Mingo County town of Matewan, stood on the side of the miners and their families.

Events came to a head with a shootout that left ten people dead, including two miners and Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, on the side of the miners; and seven mine guards, including Albert and Lee Felts, leaders of the notoriously brutal Baldwin Felts Detective Agency.

Then things got really interesting...

When I was growing up, these events were censored from our history, as was the case with generations of West Virginians. It took a lot of work to reclaim that history. One thing that helped was the release of director John Sayles' 1987 movie Matewan, filmed in Thurmond in Fayette County.

It's not on Netflix or Amazon Prime but you can probably find it if you look. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look. And if you have, it might be a good time to take another look.

May 13, 2020

They'll stone you when you're trying to be so good...

WV Governor Jim Justice's COVID-19 press conferences can be pretty unpredictable, but it was truly weird yesterday to see him basically lose his temper when asked by a reporter about a sign-on letter that several groups (including AFSC) sent about unemployment insurance for vulnerable workers and/or family members. You can view his rant here. And here's the news article written by the reporter.

(Short version: he pretty much says the groups want everyone to be on unemployment forever--not true--and that the same people wanted to let dangerous murderers and such out of prison--also not true.)

Here's the response of those who sent the letter:

As Governor Justice often reminds us, West Virginia has the largest share of its population in the country who is at risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19. The governor has been a leader in protecting vulnerable populations throughout this crisis, and it’s disappointing to hear him dismiss the concerns around continuing to protect these populations as the state begins to reopen. Among the groups that signed onto this letter are frontline service and health workers, communities of color, and disability rights groups, all of whom represent populations that are themselves at elevated risk or who have family members at risk of serious illness due to underlying medical conditions. 
The governor has the authority and the obligation to protect at-risk workers from being forced into work situations which put them at significant risk of coming into contact with COVID-19. West Virginia code states that a person is not disqualified for unemployment insurance benefits if they leave their employment for health reasons, including a condition that could be worsened or aggravated by work. We’re also asking for more transparency out of WorkForce WV, including that the agency publicly release the conditions their office is using to determine suitable work during the COVID-19 crisis.
Our intention is to work with the Justice Administration and WorkForce WV to ensure that at-risk workers are not forced to choose between their health and their finances. Public health is not a political issue.  
 A weird thing about all this is that nobody was looking to pick a fight with the Justice administration. In fact, most of those who signed on have been generally supportive of his approach..

The fact remains that reopening will expose vulnerable people to infection and possible death. Then there's this: as Sean O'Leary with the WV Center on Budget and Policy points out, federal guidelines explicitly allow for these factors to be taken into consideration as state's consider reopening and unemployment insurance options. None of which involves what Justice referred to as "playing politics."

At least we know now that someone reads these things...

May 12, 2020

Back to work?

Like most people I know, I'd like things to get back to normal...preferably a better normal than the one we had before the outbreak. However, the rush to reopen could mean a spike in infections and even fatalities.

AFSC in WV was proud to sign on to this letter to Governor Jim Justice and key members of his administration. There's a lot to it, but the main point is that when businesses reopen, many people with compromised immune systems--or who live with those who do--will have to choose between losing unemployment insurance or risking life and health. Those workers most at risk of this are disproportionately low wage earners, women and African Americans.

The letter makes several recommendations, the most important of which are that the administration:

*Confirm that individuals with health conditions that put them at risk for complications due to COVID-19 are entitled to unemployment benefits if they leave or turn down work that risks exposure.

*Allow individuals who live with at-risk individuals to continue to collect unemployment if they turn down or leave work that risks exposure.

It's a pretty radical idea: just this once, let's pretend that human life is more important than squeezing every drop of profit out of the labor of low wage workers.

May 04, 2020

How little bugs shaped big history

In H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the octopus-like Martians almost wiped out humanity — until they died from infection from earth’s micro-bugs.

One might think if Martians could develop space travel, they’d have thought about germs too, but that’s not important now. The point is that things too small to see can have a huge impact.

I’ve been thinking lately about how outbreaks have often changed the course of history.

Let’s start with the Bible. Aside from the plagues of Egypt in Exodus, an example is related in 2nd Kings and elsewhere about the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem.

The Assyrians were probably the most brutal empire in the ancient Middle East, with detailed artwork depicting torture and mass executions. They ended the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., deporting and resettling many of the survivors aside from the Samaritans, giving rise to speculation about “lost tribes of Israel.”

The same almost happened to the kingdom of Judah around 701 B.C. When things seemed hopeless, the invaders were hit by a mouse-borne epidemic, a story backed by ancient Greek historian Herodotus centuries later.

No Judah would have meant no rabbinical Judaism or Christianity.

An outbreak in Athens around 430 B.C. helped end the glory days of ancient Greece. After the Greeks defeated the Persians, Athens went to war with Sparta and its allies. The Athenians were a sea power while the Spartans were strongest on land.

Athenians brought in citizens from outlying areas, staying supplied by sea while Spartans burned their farms and fields. Overcrowding made sanitation worse, leading to an outbreak described in detail by Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian who barely survived it.

There’s debate about the disease, but we can just say it was bad. According to Thucydides, “Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of the disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.” Demoralized people “became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

Tens of thousands died, including the great political leader Pericles. While the war would drag on for 27 years, Athens never recovered and was ultimately defeated. War exhausted the winners as well. It wasn’t long before Greece was dominated by the Macedonians under Philip and his better-known son, Alexander the Great.

Rome had its outbreaks, the worst coming in 541 A.D., after it converted to Christianity. The emperor Justinian wasn’t exactly good, but he was the last to be called “the Great.” The empire had two capitals, the western in Rome and the east in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey. The west fell under “barbarian” domination, but Justinian came close to reuniting it, also engaging in diplomacy and war with the Persian superpower to his east.

Then came bubonic plague, carried by fleas on rats in grain shipments from Egypt. It raged off and on for around 200 years, killing 25-50 million people.

Any hope of reuniting the empire was gone, paving the way for the rise of Europe as distinct countries rather than imperial provinces. One place largely untouched was Arabia. Islam was soon to spread through plague-weakened regions as far as the Iberian Peninsula in the west and Persia and beyond in the east.

Plague would return to Europe around 1350, recurring in waves, by some estimates wiping out more than half the population. Some historians believe it killed feudalism and helped prepare the way for the rise of capitalism and Protestantism.

When Europeans encountered indigenous people in the Americas, Old World diseases such as smallpox, chicken pox, cholera, tuberculosis, mumps and measles wiped out huge portions of the population, far more than the considerable violence of the “discoverers.” The late Yale historian David Brion Davis called it “the greatest genocide in the history of man.”

Cortez’s small band of gold-hungry murderers wouldn’t have been able to conquer the huge Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1520 without the help of a smallpox epidemic that reduced the population by an estimated 40%.

Yet another epidemic made possible the expansion of the young United States and saved the world’s first victorious slave uprising. In the early 1800s, Napoleon sought to reimpose slavery in Haiti after a victorious uprising. Haitians fought back fiercely, aided by yellow fever, a mosquito-bourne virus brought from Africa during the slave trade. The French had never before been exposed to the disease. Their expeditionary force was wiped out. To raise money to recover, Napoleon sold the U.S. territory claimed by France for $15 million in what became known as the Louisiana Purchase. This nearly doubled the size of U.S. territory.

Epidemics weren’t done with Napoleon. In 1812, he invaded Russia with his Grand Armee of around 500,000 soldiers. Invading Russia is about as good an idea as invading Afghanistan. In addition to resistance by Russian soldiers, civilians and “General Winter,” the French were struck by lice-bourne typhus. As many as 400,000 invaders died, with typhus killing the majority. Who knows what a different outcome would have meant for Russia. Perhaps there would have never been a Stalin.

These are just a few examples of how microbes have shaped history. While we’re lucky that COVID-19 isn’t nearly as lethal as previous epidemics, it’s a safe bet that it will leave huge and lasting changes in its wake.

It’s up to us to decide what kinds of changes those will be.

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

May 01, 2020

May Day: Born in the USA

Happy Beltane, May Day and International Workers' Day! The first was a Celtic holy day. The second was a traditional European spring festival with pagan overtones. You could even say it was kind of Freudian...can you say May poles and fertility?

As for International Workers' Day, folks, especially in the Cold War era, associated it with Soviet communism and the militaristic parades that used to fill Red Square in Moscow. It might be good to recall that the May Day labor celebration grew out of efforts to establish the eight hour workday right here in the USA. It was only later that the day was adopted by the international labor and socialist movement.

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. 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.

Finally, here's a shout out to the frontline workers who have walked off the job today to call for safe working conditions, a living wage and respect.

(Note: some of this was cobbled together from older May Day posts.)

April 30, 2020

A time (and place) to test

 One of the populations most at risk of COVID-19 infection are people held in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centers and those who work there. In such institutions, social distancing is impossible.

In addition to working with allies to reduce the number of West Virginians in confinement, AFSC in WV signed on to a letter to state officials urging that universal testing for the virus be made available to all detainees and workers in the system. This is particularly urgent because a significant percentage of those with the virus show no symptoms--and since outbreaks in one setting can easily spread to the community at large.

Please feel free to share the contents of the letter and to urge state officials to take appropriate action. Here's the letter:

Monday, April 27, 2020 

Dear Governor Justice, Commissioner Jividen, and Secretary Crouch:

As the COVID-19 crisis continues in West Virginia, so does our concern regarding its impact on those behind bars or otherwise detained in congregate settings across the state. Many West Virginians are extremely worried about loved ones of all ages who are incarcerated in jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities and other out of home placements, where following social distancing guidelines is nearly impossible. The same is true of those who work in these facilities, their families and communities. We, the undersigned, share their concerns.  In fact, we would go even further to stress that what occurs in those settings can impact all West Virginians.  It is clear to all by now that prisons, just like nursing homes, schools, colleges and other locations that you have worked hard to address are at heightened risk, which then can adversely impact the general population.
We highly commend state leaders such as yourselves for taking effective measures to stop the spread of the disease. However, the recent news that a correction officer has tested positive raises disturbing possibilities.  Given the very high risk for this population and for the thousands of West Virginians connected to it in one way or another, we are writing to request that the state make universal testing available to all people detained or employed in these facilities as testing supplies become more available. Since studies indicate that many people who have and can spread the virus are asymptomatic, this is the surest way to identify cases of infection and to allow authorities to take appropriate measures in the interest of all West Virginians.

This would be consistent with federal guidance for the use of the CARES Act, which states that funds can be used for "costs of providing COVID-19 testing, including serological testing" as well as "COVID-19-related expenses of maintaining state prisons and county jails, including as relates to sanitation and improvement of social distancing measures, to enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions.”

Further, because of the vulnerability of this population, it is imperative that West Virginia provide robust transparency with regards to COVID-19 testing occurring in our corrections system. Other states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia publicly
report not only the number of positive cases in correctional facilities, but also the total number of tests performed as well. We’re asking that this information be made publicly accessible.

Ongoing forthrightness about COVID-19 testing and results within the prison system will maintain the public trust in our health and law enforcement officials. Transparency will similarly put incarcerated individuals and their families at greater ease.

Limiting the spread of COVID-19 in high-risk environments like our prison system is imperative for the health of incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and our communities as a whole. The more incarcerated individuals and correctional staff that need treatment at local hospitals, the greater the strain will be on our health care system’s capacity.

The organizations listed below represent a diverse cross section of West Virginians supporting this request. We thank you and those who work with you for your service in this difficult time and look forward to your response.


Americans for Prosperity
American Friends Service Committee
 WV Council of Churches
WV Access to Justice Commission
Catholic Diocese of WV
 American Civil Liberties Union-WV
Our Future WV
WV Center on Budget and Policy
Appalachian Prison Book Project
Mountain State Justice
NAACP – Jefferson County

April 29, 2020

The other pandemic

Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

Umberto Eco was a brilliant thinker who is probably best known for his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, which became a popular film. Aside from that bestseller, he wrote many works of fiction, criticism, and philosophy. His specialty was semiotics, which has been defined as the study of signs symbols and their interpretation.

Eco was born during Mussolini's fascist rule in Italy and remained fascinated with--and opposed to--that kind of political movement. He was also fascinated with conspiracy theories (a theme in his baroque novel Foucault's Pendulum) and the potential role of new technology in creating post-modern authoritarian political movements. Here's an interesting article on what Eco saw coming, including his 14 characteristics of fascism.

Some items on his list hit pretty close to home these days, including an exalting of traditionalism (often imagined), rejection of modernism and Enlightenment values, cult of action for action's sake, viewing disagreement as treason, fearing differences, contempt for the weak, social anxiety and frustration (usually of the middle class) as a driver, an obsession with plots and conspiracies, selective populism, a cult of machismo and weaponry, and Newspeak as in the distortion of language to impede critical thought (fake news!). There's more as listed in the article above.

He pretty much nailed it. The rise of the internet and social media, with all its positive features, provides a perfect environment for this kind of thinking to grow, especially in times of anxiety and frustration.

His views of how this plays out on social media were particularly scathing:  “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community  . . . now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.” I think it's actually darker than that, given the deliberate use of misinformation for political purposes by people--and algorithms--who/that are very good at it.

Eco seemed to retain a faith in reason and the self-destructiveness of the fascist mentality. 

We'll see.

April 23, 2020

Interesting times

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

(According to the late British author Terry Pratchett, there are two related curses. One is, “May you come to the attention of those in authority,” and the other is, “May the gods give you everything you ask for.” He wasn’t sure about the authenticity of those either.)

At any rate, our time is getting a bit too interesting for my preferences. It’s very rarely a good thing when a historical event on a global scale comes knocking on the door. I’m thinking of things like the decision to invade Iraq, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia in 1914 — not that I was around for all the above.

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

Now that’s a cheery thought.

I think it’s interesting that the ancient Greeks had two words for historical time, chronos and kairos. Chronos referred to ordinary, not-too-interesting times — business as usual. Kairos meant a special time of challenge, crisis or decision. In the New Testament, for example, when Jesus said things like “the time is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15) or “my time is not yet come” (John 7:6), the word was kairos.

If there ever was a time of kairos, this is one.

Another word of Greek origin comes to mind, as well: apocalypse. Contrary to common usage, the word itself has nothing to do with the end of the world. Rather, it means something like uncovering, revealing or lifting the veil.

I’m hoping this crisis has lifted the veil on the world we live in. It has revealed that the real heroes who keep everything going aren’t hedge fund managers, CEOs or billionaires, but the helpers, retail workers, drivers, etc., who often work for low wages and no benefits. That needs to change.

It has revealed that health care, investments in public health and paid sick days aren’t luxuries or utopian notions, but necessities.

It has revealed the bankruptcy of an ideology that worships markets and the private sector while disparaging public goods and services, reasonable regulations and democratic and accountable governance.

It has revealed that entrusting government to those who believe government can’t do anything doesn’t bring about good government.

It has revealed that we ignore science to our peril.

And it’s a reminder that we need to pay more attention to the natural world we depend on — before it pays more attention to us.

Hegel also said, “What experience and history teach is this — that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

For all our sakes, I hope he’s wrong about that.

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

April 21, 2020

Sustained outrage: a newspaper like no other

If you haven't already, check out "Sustained Outrage," a Reel South program  about the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail. It aired on PBS and temporarily available here.

It's hard to describe to someone outside of West Virginia just what a huge role this paper has played in exposing corruption, greed and various forms of skulduggery over the years. I can't imagine how much worse things would be without it.

The episode features among other things Eric Eyre's epic reporting on the opioid crisis, which snagged the Pulitzer, and MacArthur "genius" award winner Ken Ward, who has covered environmental issues for years. Sadly, neither of them remain at the paper. Eyre's book on his investigations, Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic, was released in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, although it has received rave reviews, like this one in the NY Times. And it's a safe bet we'll hear more from Ward.

Like many independent papers, it has had and continues to have challenges. There was a huge scare in 2018 that the paper, then in bankruptcy court, would be sold to the right wing Trump-loving and climate change-denying Ogden chain. At what seemed like the last minute the paper was bought by HD media, which owns the Huntington Herald-Dispatch and other local papers. There a huge collective sigh of relief when that happened.

Hard times persist at the paper. People were laid off. Some pillars of journalism have recently left, voluntarily or otherwise. Still it hangs on, thank God.

In my 31 years at AFSC, I've often worked with reporters and editors there. I have particularly fond memories of barging in with a friend to the office of the late Don Marsh, a legendary editor, and saying "We're on a mission from God." Sometimes, that really seemed to be the case. And I'm very grateful that for an even longer period of time the Gazette has allowed me to be a contributing columnist in its pages. The sense of having a voice, however limited, has made a huge difference in my life.

The first edition of what would become the Gazette came out in 1873. I hope it has another hundred or so years.

April 09, 2020

Making sure kids get food

I’m not a terribly a superstitious person — except maybe for things like throwing spilled salt over the left shoulder. Or not rocking an empty chair. Or knocking on wood when speaking of the future.

But those are purely scientific.

I have one superstition I take seriously: It is very bad luck in West Virginia to call a good piece of legislation or public policy a “no-brainer.” For some reason, the no-brainers are the hardest things to get done here.

A case in point during the most recent legislative session was House Bill 2794. It really was, well, one of those bills that should not have required undue cerebral effort. It was a very short and simple bipartisan bill addressing summer and out-of-school food programs for K-12 students.

It would have required county school systems, with the assistance of the Office of Child Nutrition, to survey students about the availability of nutritious food when schools were closed to determine local food needs. Counties would have been required to collect information about the availability of nonschool food resources and distribute this information to all students. This wouldn’t be that hard. Often organizations such as Family Resource Networks or public libraries already have that information.

It would have required that counties provide or participate in training opportunities to provide information for organizations wishing to host summer or nonschool feeding sites again with Office of Child Nutrition assistance.

Finally, it would have counties report survey results, a summary of activities, plans and recommendations for feeding kids when school isn’t in session to the Child Nutrition Office, which would share information about innovative and successful program initiatives around the state to promote best practices.

The idea wasn’t just to promote summer feeding but also to prepare counties to make sure kids have access to nutritious food in emergency situations. Like the one we’re in right now.

Friends of mine, including students, worked hard to move this bill, which eventually passed the House Education Committee. Unfortunately, it was referred to the Finance Committee, even though it had no cost to the state budget.

After heroic efforts by a lot of people, the bill was placed on the agenda of House Finance and then, deliberately, skipped over. The clock ran out and the bill died.

So here we are, in a serious emergency of unknown duration. Some counties are doing amazing work in getting food out and partnering with other organizations and volunteers. Still, some kids are falling through the cracks.

If there was ever a time for something like HB 2794, this would be it.

It would be a great if Gov. Jim Justice would finish what some legislators started by issuing an executive order enacting key provisions of the bill. In or out of school, kids still need to eat.

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

April 08, 2020

Whistle and Fish

Many years ago, a friend gave me a cassette of the late great John Prine's first album as a birthday present. She told me that someone had given her the vinyl album years before because it was so strange that she was the only person he knew who could make sense of it. I guess she saw in me a kindred spirit. But, as the outpouring of grief at Prine's death from coronavirus shows, we weren't the only ones.

Despite my chronic Dylan fixation, which is entirely involuntary, I gave it a try and was amazed. These songs were funny, silly, sad and serious and unlike anything I'd heard before. There was an added bonus: I was just trying to learn to play guitar and was pleased to learn that if you had four chords, say G C D and A7, you could wing your way through quite a few of them. And his voice sounded like a real hillbilly, which I mean as a compliment.

One of my favorite Prine songs is a silly one about a serious topic, i.e. the reconciliation of God with humanity, which might require some mutual forbearance, in the spirit of Robert Frost's words "Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee /And I'll forgive Thy great big one on me."

The song is "Whistle and Fish." Part of it goes like this:

Father forgive us  for what we must do
You forgive us and we'll forgive you
We'll forgive each other till we both turn blue
Then we'll whistle and go fishing in Heaven
I'd like to think that the two of them have let bygones be bygones and are whistling away at the Great Celestial Fishing Hole.

April 07, 2020

Organizing in place?

In an ordinary year, a lot of AFSC’s work in West Virginia revolves around the state’s legislative session, when we advocate with partners and community members on issues affecting low-income and working families. The session lasts 60 days from early January to early March. After that, we usually catch our breath a bit before gearing up for the next round.

This isn’t an ordinary year.

It now seems like an eon since the legislative session ended at midnight on March 7. And, while we made a lot of progress in working for economic justice, those wins have since been eclipsed in our memories as we face the COVID-19 pandemic. And there hasn’t been a lot of breath catching.

So how do you respond to a pandemic in a poor and rural state when you’re sheltering in place? We’re still trying to figure that out, but here’s what we’ve come up with so far. In the past few weeks, AFSC has worked with partners and community members to:

Call for immediate action to strengthen safety net programs. Along with allies, we reached out to government officials to streamline and remove barriers to accessing benefits such as SNAP food assistance, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance. Several of the recommendations have already been implemented, including ending waiting periods, work requirements, time limits, and eligibility redeterminations for these critical assistance programs during the outbreak. Earlier on, AFSC joined several other groups in a joint letter to Gov. Jim Justice making several immediate and longer term policy recommendations.

Reduce crowding in correctional institutions as a humanitarian and public health measure. In the legislative session, we joined with community members and partners in winning passage of several bills to reduce mass incarceration in our state. We built on this success to advocate for the early release of incarcerated people who did not pose a serious threat to public safety (see this press release and joint letter from a wide range of organizations, including some unusual allies, such as Americans for Prosperity).

As of a week ago at least 616 people have been released from jails, in addition to 70 held on technical violations and around 70 furloughed to their homes from work release centers. Those numbers have doubtless gone up in the meantime. The West Virginia Supreme Court has also issued guidelines to judges and magistrates to release people in jail who are awaiting trial.

Feed people—especially kids! Child nutrition has been an AFSC priority in West Virginia as far back as 1922. Our programs have worked to expand free school breakfasts and lunches statewide, but what happens when school is cancelled indefinitely? Ironically, a bill we supported to address this issue didn’t pass during the session.

With schools closed and stay-at-home orders in place, many children and seniors were at risk of going hungry. When the crisis hit, Liz Brunello of AFSC’s Appalachian Center for Equality (ACE) program teamed up with ally Jenny Anderson of Our Future WV to create a Facebook group called WV Food ER to provide information and identify needs, volunteers, and resources. The group now has over 3,100 members.

This quickly led to the creation of Rapid Response WV, made of several organizations and individuals around the state. The website allows people to donate, request assistance, or learn about volunteer opportunities and is organizing both the purchase and delivery of food products and hygienic necessities.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, this effort had helped more than 200 families and had over 260 volunteers by the end of last week. Demand for this kind of assistance is only going to increase. The One Foundation, a key funder of AFSC's WV programs, has recently dedicated $20,000 to this effort.

Call for accountability. Along with direct food assistance, AFSC and allies in the WV Food for All coalition have called on the governor to issue another executive order requiring county boards of education to come up with comprehensive food delivery systems for the duration of the crisis.

Unfortunately, it seems that we’re still in the early phase of this crisis. While we don’t know what the future will require of us, we know it will involve a combination of direct assistance and advocacy, organizing, and agitation at multiple levels.

In any unjust system, there will always be a need for direct assistance and acts of compassion. However, these are no substitutes for justice, for the right of all people to a decent standard of living.

April 05, 2020

Palm Sunday

This is a heavy day for me for several reasons. First is the nature of the day itself, which commemorates Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem in the days leading up to his crucifixion and death. The day was triumphant, with blessings and shouts of hosanna...but we know what happens five days later.

Then there's the date itself. Ten years ago today, 29 coal miners were killed in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine. Subsequent investigations, like this one written by my then co-worker Beth Spence, found a deliberate pattern at the company of evading mine safety regulations. The company no longer exists and its CEO spent a year in federal prison, although that's cold comfort to the friends and families of those who died.

I was literally on the far side of the world attending a karate seminar in Okinawa when I got the word. It felt so strange to be that far away at such a time, not that I could have done anything about it.

Finally, the holy day if not the date marks another sad loss for West Virginia and the world. It was on Palm Sunday in 1979, (April 8th to be exact, Easter being a movable feast) that Breece Pancake, in my opinion the state's greatest writer killed himself in Charlottesville.

He was from my home town of Milton and we had some family connections. At the time, I was working at the town library with his mother Helen. I remember going to work to pretend to clean the library that Sunday and finding main librarian Toney Reese there, visibly upset.

I'd work with Helen every Tuesday night and every other Saturday for the next six years and we grew very close over that time. It was sad but still a privilege watching his book of short stories come together and take off. It hasn't landed yet.

If nothing else, this day is a reminder of how quickly and drastically things can change...although we probably didn't need to be reminded of that today.

April 02, 2020

Getting existential

When I was 20, I got bit by a bug that wouldn’t let go. It could go dormant for years, but symptoms would eventually reemerge.

The bug was existentialism, a philosophy popular in the post-World War II era but long since out of fashion.

It wasn’t really a school of thought. Thinkers associated with it generally denied the label and disagreed with each other. They spanned a century and were all over the place politically. Some were religious, others atheistic. Some were authors and artists more than philosophers. People associated with it include Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvior, Karl Jaspers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Frantz Fanon and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

It was more mood than system, but one theme is that we are thrown into this world (to echo The Doors) without being consulted about it (to echo Kierkegaard). Then we have to improvise.

Other animals have more of a genetic script. Our lives would be easier if that were the case. We’d spend less time wondering about what we’re going to do next.

We’re here first and then have to figure out what to become within the limits of our situation. To get fancy, our existence precedes our essence — hence the term.

In other words, we have a kind of freedom. For existentialists, this isn’t freedom as in, “you can do or be whatever you want,” but more like a weight, as in, “you will always bear the burden of your decisions.”

For Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Here’s a simple example. I’m a longtime runner, although these days it looks more like walking (my rule: you’re running when you think you are).

Imagine we’re running a 15K (9.3-mile) local race, like the Poca River Run or the Dirty Dog Trail Run. You start out. It’s cold. Your lungs hurt. Ditto legs, feet and body. Part of you wants to cry or quit or walk, speaking from experience. What to do? If you quit, you must ask if you could have kept going. Could you have gone any faster? Should you have stopped to avoid injury?

It’s a decision you must make. There’s no external coercion.

That’s a mild example. But existentialists remind us that we make our decisions in the context of mortality. We are fragile and, at some point, we’re going to die. As for what, if anything, happens after that, there are beliefs but no certainty. It is our finiteness and mortality that make our decisions matter.

In an essay published shortly after the end of WWII, Sartre wrote: “We [the French people] were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or another, as workers, Jews, or political prisoners, we were deported en masse. Everywhere, on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our oppressors wanted us to accept. And, because of all this, we were free.”

He meant that people were responsible for their decisions of whether to resist or collaborate with the Nazis at whatever cost.

He went on to say: “Exile, captivity and especially death (which we usually shrink from facing at all in happier times) became for us the habitual objects of our concern. We learned that they were neither inevitable accidents, nor even constant and exterior dangers, but that they must be considered as our lot itself, our destiny, the profound source of our reality as men. At every instant we lived up to the full sense of this commonplace little phrase: ‘Man is mortal!’ And the choice that each of us made of his life and of his being was an authentic choice ...”

It’s when we hit these “limit situations,” in an expression of Jaspers, that we realize the burden of our freedom, our choices and our decisions — which brings us back to our current situation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

At this moment, rich or poor, lucky or unlucky, mainstream or marginal, we are all facing a limit situation. (Actually, we’re always in one but mostly choose to ignore it.) We don’t know how long it will last, how bad it will get, who will be next, who will die or who will recover. Outbreak or not, we’re all temporary problems. But the things we think, say and do matter now.

Here’s the question: Knowing that we’re just here for a little while, what do we do with the time we have?

I can’t think of anything more shameful than to have to say at the end, “I spent my life making lots of money while making life worse for other people.” Or “I devoted my career to taking away health care from millions of Americans.” Or “I stood in the way of people taking meaningful action about catastrophic climate change.” Or “I spread hatred and fear of people who were different.”

That’s true whether we die to God, to karma or to nothingness. Our decisions matter.

We own them. And they own us.

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

March 31, 2020

What can you do?

OK, so you're sheltering in place and wondering what you can do with the world in a mess. Here's an idea: Feed people—especially kids!

Child nutrition has been an AFSC priority here in West Virginia as far back as 1922. Our programs have worked to expand free school breakfasts and lunches statewide…but what happens when school is cancelled indefinitely?

Ironically, a bill we supported to address this issue didn’t pass during the session....maybe our theory (that feeding kids was a good idea) was correct.

With schools closed and stay-at-home orders in place, many children and seniors are at risk of going hungry. When the crisis hit, Liz Brunello of AFSC’s ACE (Appalachian Center for Equality) program teamed up with ally Jenny Anderson of Our Future WV to create a Facebook group called WV Food ER to provide information and identify needs, volunteers and resources. The group now has nearly 3,000 members. Check it out.

This quickly led to the creation of Rapid Response WV, which is composed of several organizations and individuals around the state. The website allows people to donate, request assistance or learn about volunteer opportunities and is organizing both the purchase and delivery of food products and hygienic necessities. Thanks to the generosity of donors, Rapid Response WV has helped over 180 families and has over 260 volunteers. Demand for this kind of assistance is only going to increase. The One Foundation, a key AFSC funder, has recently dedicated $10,000 to this effort.

Check it out if you want to donate, get help or volunteer.

There will also be plenty of opportunities for (remote) hell raising to get counties, the state and Congress to do right in the days ahead.

March 25, 2020

The Feast of the Annunciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 23, 2020

Happy 10th, Affordable Care Act!

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

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

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

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

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

March 22, 2020

The dream cure

Healing temple of Asclepius at Kos, by way of wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

I'll take that. Thanks, Asclepius!

March 20, 2020

A poem for an indefinite time out period

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

Keeping Quiet

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

March 19, 2020

Thoughts on getting through these days

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

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

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

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

Then things really get bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t notice what we get used to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s pretty much the human condition.

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

But if you do, enjoy the cowbell.

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

March 16, 2020

WV groups urge state action on COVID-19

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

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

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

In the short-term:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the longer term:

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

March 13, 2020

Interesting times

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831)

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

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

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

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

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

March 12, 2020

Stating the obvious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 11, 2020

Just thinking

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2020

Bible yes, Bible bill no

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, that was the road not taken.

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

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

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

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

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

It worked for me.

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

March 05, 2020

Country roads, let them drive

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

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

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

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

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

This makes sense for all kinds of reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope the state Senate seals the deal.

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

February 26, 2020

Let's not "gig" working families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s bad enough when it happens to frogs.

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

February 19, 2020

Speaking tooth to power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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