Poverty & Wealth

Five Things Government Does Better Than You Do

We know a lot less about how to manage money than we think.

(Flickr / Sheffield Tiger)
When Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan and other hard-line conservatives talk about cutting the government’s budget, their primary rationale is that individuals can make better decisions with their own money than the government can. As Ryan himself said to an audience at Georgetown University, “We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families and to communities.” It sounds reasonable—of course we want individuals to have power, and of course we want communities to take care of their neediest members. And since conservatives have done a fine job of portraying the government as full of heartless, inept bureaucrats, allowing people to make their own decisions sounds better than the alternative. The conservative approach to government stems from a basic tenet of free-market economics: that people always act rationally to maximize their own benefits, and that from this rises a general state of well-being for...

Voting Rights Lose in Pennsylvania

(AP Photo/Marc Levy)
Let's imagine a world in which Pennsylvania's voter-ID law did not disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. The law, which requires voters show government-issued identification in order to vote, has created significant burdens for voters without IDs, a population disproportionately made up of poor people and minorities. In our imaginary world, the state would do a stellar job of educating voters, reaching out to African Americans—who disproportionately lack state IDs—and Spanish-language media. They would send postcards as early as possible to tell every voter in the state about the change. A "card of last resort" would be available to any voter who could not easily access the required documents for a standard ID, which include a birth certificate and a Social Security card. Employees at the state's driver's license centers would be well-versed in the law and give voters advice about what was needed and what they were entitled to receive for free. Election workers would be well...

How to Get Out the Vote in a Voter ID World

(AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, Mike Ransdell)
Voter ID laws create an unnecessary barrier to voting that disproportionately affects poor and nonwhite voters. If you’re going to have them, you should at least tell people that they're going into effect. But given the impetus of these laws—to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters—it's no surprise that few of the states that have passed them have made any effort to educate voters. Since 2010, 12 states have passed laws requiring voters to show government-issued identification in order to vote. One such law is Pennsylvania's, where studies estimate anywhere from 780,000 to 1.2 million could be turned away at the polls on Election Day because of new ID requirements. A state court is expected to rule this week on whether the law can go forward, but in the meantime, many have blasted Pennsylvania's anemic efforts to inform voters. Because the state originally estimated that far fewer voters would be affected, the plan was simply to remind those who turned out for the April primaries...

The 1% of the 1%

(Image courtesy of Sunlight Foundation/Ali Felski)
The Sunlight Foundation has a don't-miss examination of the one-hundredth of the top one-percent who give nearly a quarter of all political contributions. Here's what Lee Drutman has to say about their research: In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That's 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. Together, they would fill only two-thirds of the 41,222 seats at Nationals Park the baseball field two miles from the U.S. Capitol. When it comes to politics, they are The One Percent of the One Percent.... are not average Americans. Overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists, and lawyers. A good number appear to be highly ideological. They give to multiple candidates and to parties and independent issue groups. They tend to cluster in a...

The Truth about Welfare

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)
After absorbing months of attacks on him as an economic royalist, Mitt Romney is hitting back with an ad as dishonest as any you'll ever see , accusing Barack Obama of coddling welfare recipients ("You wouldn't have to work … they just send you your welfare check"). Literally every word after the 8 second mark on this ad is a lie, with the exception of "I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message." But the welfare attack is an old Republican standby; if the middle class suspects you're not one of them, remind them that their resentment should be pointed down, not up. The real enemy is poor people, and those who would indulge them. A GOP presidential campaign that doesn't eventually bust out this attack would be like a wedding band that doesn't know how to play "Y.M.C.A." But since there hasn't been much debate about welfare in some time, it's a good opportunity to remind ourselves of what the program is and isn't, and what role it plays in America today. Needless to say, you won't get...

Red, White and Untrue: Romney's Big Lie about Military Voting

A soldier fills out an absentee ballot in Qatar.(Flickr/expertinfantry)
If Ferris Bueller taught us anything, it was this: If you're going to lie or mislead, do it in a big, over-the-top kind of way. At least it'll be memorable. It's a lesson Mitt Romney's campaign took to heart this past weekend. But instead of stealing a Ferrari or taking over a parade, they opted for something much darker. Halfway through the general-election campaign, attacks from both campaigns have been so relentless as to make each one fade into a low background buzz. Getting something to cut through the noise is hard. So when President Obama's campaign filed a lawsuit to restore the rights to all Ohio citizens to cast early ballots up until the Sunday before Election Day—a right that the Ohio legislature had restricted to active-duty military personnel casting their ballots in person—the Romney side decided to go all in with a charge so outlandish it was bound to capture attention. "President Obama's lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional for Ohio to allow servicemen and women...

Pennsylvania's Other Voter ID Battle

(Photo of Voting poster from Flickr/kristin_a; Photo of Independence Hall from Flickr/harshlight)
When Pennsylvania Republicans passed the nation's most restrictive voter ID law in March, requiring all voters to show government-issued photo identification, it was less than eight months before the November elections. It was going to be a sprint to train state workers and election workers on the new law, and to inform the public and help those who needed to get new IDs. Fortunately, Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, the state's election chief, had assured everyone during the legislative debate that 99 percent of voters already had a valid ID ready to go . For the other 1 percent, the state would make the new voter IDs free , and would advertise the new law widely to make sure everyone who had lost their eligibility would know what to do. After all, proponents argued, the point of a voter ID law wasn't to prevent folks from voting; it was to guard against voter fraud, even if that hadn't yet become a problem in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Now, three months before Election...

Cordray Goes to Congress

House Republicans can’t stop fuming about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Job creators, job creators, job creators. That's all you hear from Mitt Romney and Congressional Republicans these days. For the most part, Republicans trot out the job creator (a figure spoken about with great veneration, but in fact a term coined and crowd-tested by GOP talking-point guru Frank Luntz) whenever large discussions on government spending or tax cuts come into play. But a quiet little hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill showed that this veneration trickles down to the most minute details of policymaking. The House Small Business Committee had summoned Richard Cordray, director of the upstart Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) , to testify on a series of regulations the agency proposed to drastically simplify the forms you see before you close a deal on a mortgage. Theoretically, the hearing was a chance for the representatives to scrutinize these regulations and propose subtle (or not-so-subtle) tweaks if things weren't working. But the types of changes...

Pennsylvania Voters: Dazed and Confused

(Flickr/richiec)
This is going to sound crazy, but in Philadelphia, plenty of voting-rights activists are hoping plaintiffs lose their case against the state voter-ID law—at the lower court level, that is. Pennsylvania's voter-ID law, one of the most restrictive in the country, requires a government-issued photo ID in order to vote, and would disenfranchise a significant number of voters , particularly those who are poor, elderly, and nonwhite. It's a scary prospect, and the lawsuit brought by several voting-rights groups on behalf of ten plaintiffs seeks to get the law suspended. Closing arguments ended yesterday, and Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson has promised to rule on the measure by August 13. So why would any voting-rights activist hope that Simpson rules in favor of the state? Because if Simpson decides to grant an injunction, it will complicate the message of voting-rights activists who are urging people to get the new ID. Some worry that if the headlines say the lack is struck down,...

Farm Bill on Life Support as Drought Worsens

(Flickr/David Morris)
This month, the House agriculture committee finished its work on the farm bill—a massive piece of legislation that sets policy on everything from government subsidies to food stamps. Even though the Senate had passed its version of the farm bill, which must be reauthorized every five years, no one expected House Majority Leader John Boehner to bring the House committee’s version to the floor before the August recess. Since the farm bill is likely to rile both the Tea Party caucus, which will balk at the huge subsidies that go to some of the nation’s richest farmers, and liberals, who will decry the $16 billion House republican leaders want to cut from food stamps in a time of increased need, most believed Boehner would view it too thorny an issue to bring up so close to election season. As many predicted, Boehner has signaled that he will instead extend the current bill, which passed in 2008, by one year. An extension has the political advantage of allowing Republicans to avoid...

The Deep, Dark Mysteries of Pennsylvania's Voter ID

(Flickr/ Bilal Kamoon)
Sometimes fearing the unknown isn't such a bad idea. Like, for instance, when they're serving "mystery meat" in the cafeteria. Or, on a slightly bigger scale, when your state is considering a new law that could disfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. Pennsylvania legislators had no such healthy sense of fear when it came to passing the nation's most restrictive voter ID law just a little over four months ago—practically yesterday, considering the ramifications of such a huge change to election procedures. But when the bill was being debated, lawmakers and state officials supporting the bill insisted it would be a breeze to ensure that no one was disenfranchised; everybody who wanted to vote would still be able to vote. "This is going to be an additional responsibility," said Daryl Metcalf, the Republican state representative who sponsored the bill, but "one that is not burdensome in any way." Besides, Republican Governor Tom Corbett's office said that only 1 percent of...

Who's Affected by Pennsylvania's Voter-ID Law?

Viviette Applewhite, one of the ACLU's plaintiffs (ACLU)
As the first big lawsuit against the Pennsylvania's voter-ID law starts its third day at trial, arguments about the legality of the law have focused largely on who's impacted by it. First, the secretary of the commonwealth estimated as many as 758,000 Pennsylvanians lacked the most common form of ID —those issued by the state Department of Transportation. A political scientist's study showed that number to be around a million. Either way, it's a lot of people, and we know a disproportionate number of them are poor, nonwhite, and elderly. Still, those supporting strict voter-ID laws, which require citizens to show government-issued identification before voting, often cast suspicion on anyone without an ID. They argue that you need photo identification for pretty much anything these days, and people without them must be freaks or criminals—people we don't want voting anyway. Republican Texas state Representative Jose Aliseda exemplifies this position; he recently said that anyone...

What's the Deal with the Pennsylvania Voter-ID Law?

"I voted" picture: (Flickr/ Vox Efx) Liberty Bell photograph: (Flickr/dcwriterdawn)
We get it. Real-life court dramas are not as exciting as Judge Judy (and definitely not as exciting as Judge Joe Brown). So we totally don't judge you for not knowing why the hell Pennsylvania's voter-ID law is suddenly in court. Of course, you thought you'd covered your bases when you read our early explanation of voter-ID laws. (If you didn't, well, you only need to be a little embarrassed.) You know there's basically no evidence of in-person voter fraud where one person impersonates another—the only type of fraud voter ID guards against. You know that the big fights were in Texas and South Carolina. So why is everyone so worked up about some court case in Harrisburg? Well let us be quick and leave you plenty of time for Court TV. So a bunch of states have voter-ID laws—what's the big deal about Pennsylvania? Well, not shockingly in a presidential election year, a lot of it boils down to politics. Pennsylvania is a swing state in a close election, so every vote each side can pull...

Eric Holder's New Fight Against Voter ID

(Flickr/Vox Efx)
Yesterday, Eric Holder opened a new front in his fight to preserve voting rights, as the Department of Justice announced that it would launch an investigation into Pennsylvania's voter ID law. The attorney general has been an outspoken critic of the strict new laws that require voters to show government-issued photo identification, calling them the equivalent of a modern-day "poll tax." The DOJ has blocked implementation of voter ID in Texas and South Carolina—states that, because of their histories of voter suppression, are listed in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and therefore must get preclearance from the DOJ before they can change their election laws. (Both states are fighting back in court.) But Pennsylvania, like half the states that have passed strict voter ID laws, does not need to get DOJ permission before it changes its election laws. Instead, the Justice Department has taken an entirely new line of attack. In a letter to Pennsylvania's Secretary of the Commonwealth,...

Creating a Countercyclical Welfare System

Clinton-era reforms mean that our safety net is weakest when we need it most.

Welfare systems exist to reduce the worst excesses of poverty. When poverty increases during recessions, the welfare state is supposed to rush into countercyclical action, providing a firewall against a growth in destitution. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, it’s never been the case. In recent years in particular, the American welfare system has increasingly shed itself of this key obligation. In 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—the welfare system established in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act—was scrapped in favor of a more limited system, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). But in the Great Recession that began in 2008, TANF has proved a total disaster. Unemployment doubled in many states, but in most of them, the number of TANF enrollees either increased only marginally or decreased. It wasn’t always that way. “AFDC used to be countercyclical,” says economist James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research. The...

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