Thursday, April 20, 2006

Welfare Reform

In the brave new world of one-party rule in America, we have a Congress that no longer debates public policy – just rams it through. If a measure looks as if it may fail, it’s slipped quietly into an appropriations bill or some other guaranteed to pass piece of legislation. The REAL ID ACT was inserted into an appropriations bill. New regulations on TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) were casually slipped into the euphemistically named “Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005” aka the 2006 budget. Now those new regulations are coming to light – regulations that NH must comply with by October 1. NH DHHS Commissioner John Stephen brought a proposal to the NH Senate this week.

The Federal government requires the states to increase the number of TANF recipients who are working 30 hours a week by 1, 164, in order to meet the requirement that all states must have 50% of their TANF population employed in any given week.
Now, this doesn’t sound terrible – we all hope that TANF recipients will be able to leave poverty behind and get good jobs. What is curious about the new regulations is what the federal government is willing to consider as “work.” At this moment in time, vocational education and job search programs count as ‘work.” Under the new law, those activities will be limited. Could someone please explain to me how a vocational education program is a bad thing? Learning a trade seems like a ticket right out of poverty and into the permanent workforce. Trade jobs are not easily outsourced. Under the new regulations, internships and community service will count as “work.” Okay – so learning a trade isn’t “work” but volunteering is? That is just ridiculous.

The 1996 welfare reform laws brought sweeping change to eligibility and administration of welfare programs. There was a dramatic decrease in welfare rolls; from 12.2 million to 4.5 million. In the booming economy of the 1990’s, many were able to move out of poverty. There were many jobs that paid a living wage. We hear much about the current booming economy, but the reality is that poverty is on the increase. Real wages are on the decline and good paying jobs are being exported. The gap between the haves and have nots has reached epic proportions. We’ve all read about the Exxon CEO who is earning almost $6000 an hour in retirement. For the rest of the population, increasing numbers of people are hungry and homeless – in fact, Hurricane Katrina seems to have created a permanent refugee population in the southern part of the US.

TANF is a 60 month program. An eligible person may receive only 60 months of benefits in their lifetime. This isn’t the free ride that some portray it as. In NH, the maximum TANF benefit per month for a family of 2 is $556. For a family of 3 the maximum benefit is $625, and for 4 it is $668. Even with food stamps – this is not enough for housing, clothing, and transportation. NH TANF recipients are not buying Cadillacs. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” crowd is often comprised of people whom have never had to do any such thing. It’s difficult to dig out of poverty – and this kind of regulation change seems guaranteed to make the process harder.

The new reform measures include $150 million to support programs that encourage marriage and responsible fatherhood. I’m certainly in favor of initiatives that encourage men to be committed and involved fathers – that’s a wonderful thing. Touting marriage as the way out of poverty is bizarre. The surest route to poverty for a woman is childbirth. If we want to eliminate welfare programs and poverty, we’d do well to encourage comprehensive sex ed programs, and encourage the use of contraceptives, instead of trying to make the process ever more restrictive.

We can’t have it both ways. Abstinence only programs are a surefire way of increasing teen pregnancy rates, which in turn increases the poverty rate, and the numbers of TANF recipients. Restricting and eliminating abortion will have the same effect. We need to stop pretending otherwise. The only sure way to avoid poverty is to be born into a wealthy family. Perhaps we should encourage the unborn to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and choose the right parents.

The American dream has moved beyond the reach of many – and as a society we are unwilling to examine this, never mind discuss it. While leafleting on tax day, I heard outrage from a few about their tax dollars supporting “lazy welfare bums.” A very small percentage of our tax dollars actually go to TANF – over half the discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon, in one form or another. That dismissive rhetoric, not even rooted in reality is damaging – and only results in further stigmatizing those who are stuck in poverty.

Do we really want to eliminate poverty? No real steps being taken to do so, just smoke and mirrors. Spending our tax dollars to encourage TANF recipients to get married is silly – even sillier when one considers that we’re going to have to cut them out of vocational education programs. The message for women is clear: Husband = good. Trade = bad. I realize that Commissioner Stephen has a tough task ahead of him. I hope that he and Governor Lynch will encourage other states to call for changes that makes sense – because these new TANF reform laws sure don’t. It seems likely that more women (the ones without potential husbands) will be forced into permanent low wage employment, and a lifetime of poverty.

“There was never a war on poverty. Maybe there was a skirmish on poverty.” Andrew Cuomo

Thursday, April 06, 2006

NH House says NO to REAL ID ACT

Two weeks ago, Congressman Jeb Bradley had a town hall meeting in his hometown of Wolfeboro. It was a long and contentious meeting. The main concerns of the constituents were the war in Iraq, the budget, the deficit, and Medicare Part D. A man who identified himself as a Kennebec Indian expressed concern that he would soon need a passport to travel to Canada, gently chiding Bradley for a policy he felt wasn’t very neighborly. Congressman Bradley, eager to explain, began to tell this fellow about the REAL ID ACT, and why it was a good thing. A young man leaped up in another part of the room and bellowed, “You mean the National ID Card??” This caused a moment of silence, followed by applause from many in the room. I’ve heard Bradley explain REAL ID as being a way to fight terrorism and root out undocumented immigrants. I’ve never heard him discuss any of the other ramifications of REAL ID – especially the cost.

Right around the same time Bradley was smiling and telling us why Real ID is good, the NH House voted on HB 1582, a bill declaring that NH would not participate in the REAL ID ACT. This bill was heard in the Transportation Committee. The committee didn’t like REAL ID, but decided that NH should comply now, in the hopes of changing it later. The committee voted to recommend the bill ITL (inexpedient to legislate). When it went to the floor for a vote, a number of stirring speeches were made, including one by Representative Neal Kurk who invoked the words Patrick Henry delivered to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1785. As one representative told me later, “The House was in a rebellious mood that day.” The House voted 217-84 to go against the committee recommendation and refuse to cooperate with the federal government meddling in our state business.

The REAL ID ACT was voted into law last year. After it barely passed the House, it was inserted into a military appropriations bill, to ensure its passage in the Senate. It establishes a federally approved, electronically readable ID card. This card would be required to open a bank account, travel by air, or collect Social Security. Your state driver’s license would have to meet federal ID standards established by the Department of Homeland Security. Those standards have yet to be established. The state DMV would issue this ID, but a far more rigorous process would be required in order to prove citizenship. The DMV employees would verify the documentation, digitalize the information, and store the information. All states would link up these databases – creating a national database.
The REAL ID ACT requires that the cards be electronically readable, but leaves the details to Homeland Security. It will most likely be electronically scannable. They like the idea of embedding RFID chips in the cards. RFID chips emit a radio signal to a transponder, notifying the transponder of its whereabouts. It’s great for tracking luggage at the airport. It will also be handy for the Dept. of Homeland Security to track the location of any one of us. Since Homeland Security has unilateral control over the ID requirements, the requirements will be subject to change at their whim.

The Bush administration estimated this would cost $100 million to implement. Other studies show that this is a woefully low figure. REAL ID compliance will cost Pennsylvania approximately $85 million and Virginia could pay up to $169 million. Estimates show that it will cost as much as $12 million to convert NH – yet the federal government is only giving us $3 million. Guess who will be picking up the rest of the tab for yet another unfunded Bush mandate?

A brief review: our Congressional delegation voted in favor of an electronically readable ID card that must comply with unknown standards set by the Dept. of Homeland Security. The data gathered by the DMV will be put into a database, which will be part of a nationally linked database. Anyone who swipes the card through an electronic device will have all the information contained in the card. The cards may also have tracking chips embedded in them. The federal government has set aside an insufficient sum for state DMVs to make the transition. Bottom line friends – we’re getting a National ID card, our personal information will be in a national database – and we’re going to pay for the privilege!

Bravo to the NH House for voting in favor of HB 1582. REAL ID is going to be an expensive violation of our privacy. Anyone who doesn’t think that a national database provides a wonderful opportunity for hacking, identity theft, and selling of information is unconscious. The threat of terrorism must not be used to manipulate us into sacrificing our civil liberties and our privacy. REAL ID goes into effect in 2008. There is still plenty of time to stand up and say NO. Other states will very likely be emboldened to do the same. To suggest that we comply now and change it later is weak and cowardly. Trying to change a system afterward is difficult and costly. Far better to not implement it in the first place. If non-compliance means we can’t enter federal buildings, I guess that means we won’t need to be paying federal taxes, either. It’s about time we rebel against the constant threats to our civil liberties and our privacy. NH is just the state to lead that rebellion.

The NH Senate will be hearing HB 1582 on Monday, April 10th, at 1 pm. There will be a press conference with NH Caspian at noon in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building on N. State St. NH Caspian is an organization working against electronic tracking devices and other invasions of privacy. You can learn more about them at . Let’s encourage our state senators to stand tall and vote for HB1582.

“I don’t believe that the people of New Hampshire elected us to help the federal government create a national identification card. We care more for our liberties than to meekly hand over to the federal government the potential to enumerate, track, identify, and eventually control.” NH State Representative Neal Kurk

This should appear in the Conway Daily Sun on April 7, but there are no guarantees when it comes to my work. I also feel compelled to say that this may be the only time I ever agree with Representative Neal Kurk.