Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Why the Kerner Commission Didn't Move the Needle on Racial Justice

Five decades after President Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to investigate the roots of racial discrimination and violence in urban America, remarkably little has changed. That’s the conclusion of a new book co-authored by former Senator Fred Harris, the sole surviving member of the commission. Organized in the wake of deadly riots in more than 100 cities in 1967, the commission offered a grim assessment of the stark inequality, police brutality, and endemic discrimination fueling racial violence. “We are moving toward two societies,” the commission warned, “one black, one white, separate and unequal.” On the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, Senator Harris writes that the United States has largely failed to confront those issues head on.

We may be disappointed, but we should not be surprised. Appointing commissions to study the causes of racial violence was the standard American response to racial turmoil in the 20th century—typically with limited results. Starting with the riots in East St. Louis in 1917 through the Harlem riots of 1943, at least 21 commissions were appointed in the United States to make recommendations to prevent the recurrence of riots. In the 1960s, at least 13 riot commissions were appointed to respond to race-related civil unrest.

The best of these reports provided fair pictures of endemic racial biases and disparities. None proved to be a blueprint resulting in progress.

The Kerner Report was unique only because it raised the profile of racial unrest to the national level. But it wasn’t unique for long. Three months after it was released in February 1968, riots sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (as well as the shock of the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy) prompted Johnson to once again appoint a commission to investigate.

Interracial violence has taken various forms over the years—whites attack black communities, blacks respond to police violence, for example. But despite this variation in the forms of interracial conflict, appointing commissions to study riots has been the norm. To what end?

The primary purpose of riot commissions, as David J. Olson and I concluded in our book Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America (1977), has been to allow political leaders to give the appearance of responding to crises without having to make any consequential decision in the heat of the moment. The commissions, comprised of high-status individuals with strong ties to existing institutions, instead report some time later, when the immediate crisis has cooled and normal political processes can prevail. In short, political leaders buy time. 

The Kerner Commission differed from other riot commissions not only because its scope was national rather than local, but also because its report was soon followed by the riots that occurred after Dr. King’s death, in a sense continuing the urgency underlying the origins of the report. 

As has been widely reported, President Johnson was disappointed that the Kerner Commission did not give more credit to his domestic policy agenda. And it’s possible that the president’s embrace of the report might have led to greater progress on the report’s recommendations. 

A reading of the history of riot commissions in America, however, would temper this conclusion.  Riot commissions have typically functioned to dampen demand for change and restore the status quo. However well-intentioned, the Kerner Commission was hardly an exception.

Studies Show Private-Sector Providers Are Not Ready to Care for Veterans

As Congress moves ahead with plans to outsource more and more veteran health care to the private sector, three high-profile studies should urge lawmakers to pump the brakes. The studies, published in recent weeks by RAND Corporation, Federal Practitioner, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, spotlight serious flaws in private-sector veterans’ care compared with the VHA, from suicide prevention to overall health care. In so doing, the reports underscore a critical fact: Despite their best intentions, few private-sector physicians, hospitals, mental health, and other health-care professionals have the knowledge, experience, and skill to provide the level of care veterans need and deserve.

Perhaps the most damning of those studies comes from the RAND Corporation. In a report entitled “Ready or Not?” researchers examined whether private-sector health professionals in New York state had the “capacity” and “readiness” to deal with that state’s 800,000 veterans in need of care. Such patients, the study noted, are on average older, sicker, poorer, and far more complex than the ordinary civilian-sector patient.   

The conclusion? Only 2 percent of New York state providers met RAND’s “final definition as ready to provide timely and quality care to veterans in the community.”

While the majority of providers said they had room for new patients, less than 20 percent of them ever asked their patients if they were veterans. Fewer than half used appropriate clinical practice guidelines to treat their patients, and 75 percent didn’t use the kind of screening tools commonly deployed in the VHA to detect critical problems like PTSD, depression, and risk of suicide.

Most providers had no understanding of military culture and less than one-half said they were interested in filling such knowledge gaps. Mirroring a similar study conducted by the VA and Medical University of South Carolina in 2011, RAND found that New York state providers had little understanding of the high quality of VHA care. Informed by media reports rather than medical journals, they had a negative view of the VHA and would be unlikely to refer eligible veterans to the VHA for needed care in programs in which the VHA actually excels.

Echoing the RAND study, another report by VA psychologist Russell Lemle in the Federal Practitioner warns that in the private sector, the quality of integrated mental health care for veterans lags significantly behind the VHA. Every VHA medical center, Lemle reports, has at least one trained suicide prevention coordinator who directs care for veterans at high risk for suicide. The VHA has also developed an algorithm to identify the veterans who are at the very highest risk of suicide and notifies their provider of the risk assessment, enabling preemptive intervention and expansion of services to the veteran. This and other programs explains why the rate of suicide of veterans not using the VHA increased by 38 percent between 2001 and 2014 while only 5 percent for those using the VHA. For veterans who had a “mental health or substance use diagnosis, the rate decreased by 25 percent.”

Finally, for veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, a prestigious National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report released just four weeks ago found VHA mental health care to be “comparable or superior to that in the private sector.” The majority of veterans who accessed the system had “positive experiences” and appreciated VHA staff’s “respect toward patients.” This was despite serious shortages of mental health staff, as well as clinical and exam space, and confusion about how to access care—all of which could, and should, be improved. When veterans were asked whether needed services were provided in the VHA, 64 percent said they were. When they were asked about services they’d received in the private sector, only 20 percent said they got needed services.   

These studies should be a wake-up call to Congress. Countless reports have documented that there is little excess capacity—and a huge shortfall of knowledge—in the private sector when it comes to veteran health care. Until studies document the opposite—that the private sector’s doctors, nurses, hospitals and other health-care providers can match what the VHA does routinely—lawmakers should hold off on privatization efforts. Rather than spending money for more expensive private-sector care of lower quality, Congress should instead be working to strengthen the excellent care the VHA gives by providing funding to remedy any staff and resource deficiencies as well as to address management problems at the top.  

Planned Parenthood Launches $20 Million Midterm Election Campaign

On Wednesday, Planned Parenthood announced a plan to invest $20 million in the 2018 midterm elections, the organization’s largest midterm campaign effort yet.

The electoral battle plan initially targets gubernatorial and Senate races in eight states—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—with plans to expand to other states and smaller races. Of those states, the campaign’s newly unveiled website pledges to focus its energy on “key races” in Nevada, where many consider Republican Senator Dean Heller to be vulnerable; Pennsylvania, where Democratic Governor Tom Wolf faces re-election; and Wisconsin, where Planned Parenthood wants to help oust Republican Governor Scott Walker and re-elect Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin.

Citing Democratic successes in Alabama and Virginia in 2017 that were thanks in large part to the mobilization of women voters, particularly black women, Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood’s national organizing director, said the organization hopes to capitalize on that political momentum and “channel the activism” of its 11 million supporters.

Recent years have seen Planned Parenthood transform itself from a woman’s health organization to a massive political force under the leadership of Cecile Richards, who announced in late January that she would be stepping down as president. In 2017, as supporters fought against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and defund the organization, Planned Parenthood launched an organizer-training program, with volunteer “boot camps” intended to strengthen an activist network across all 50 states.

“This year,” Planned Parenthood Press Secretary Ben Halle told the Prospect in an email, “we’ll be turning to our volunteers to help us continue to fight against attacks against Planned Parenthood and access to health care, to work in their communities to educate and engage people on these issues, as well as help us win at the ballot box in 2018.”

West Virginia Communities Unite Behind Historic Teacher Strike

It’s day four of the West Virginia teachers’ strike, in which nearly 20,000 teachers across the state are demanding higher pay and better health insurance.

On Tuesday, union leaders finally secured a meeting with Republican Governor Jim Justice—meaning the strike could end today if demands are met. The teachers, coordinated by the American Federation of Teachers–West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association, technically are barred from striking, so their recent approach is not only brave, but highlights the urgency of their difficulties: Many teachers are forced to take second jobs to make ends meet, and low salaries (teacher pay in West Virginia ranks 48th in the country) and inadequate benefits likely contribute to West Virginia’s teacher shortage.

Justice, a billionaire, signed into law meager pay raises last week, which prompted the walkout, had admonished the nearly 20,000 striking teachers—and 10,000 striking support staff—saying they “should be appreciative of where [they] are” and “should be back in the classroom.” Justice did propose raising the natural gas severance tax, saying the revenue could provide raises for teachers.

Residents and local businesses are demonstrating their support by bringing food, water, and coffee, to the teachers, says Chad Webb, the partnership coordinator of Reconnecting McDowell, an AFT-led county revitalization initiative. “Driving through McDowell County, businesses have [signs saying] ‘We support our teachers.’”

Local support for what amounts to the largest teachers’ strike in state history—across all 55 counties—is a continuation of West Virginia’s rich legacy of labor activism, with some teachers even wearing red bandanas—an homage to the coal miners of the early 20th-century labor battles, who wore red bandanas and were thus called “rednecks.”

Just over the state border, teachers in Pittsburgh, a city that shares that same strong labor history, are planning to strike this Friday if their union and the school district cannot reach a contract agreement.

Urban Institute Study Finds Millions of Americans Live in Higher Education Deserts

Millions of American adults cannot access any type of higher education based on their location, according to a new study from the Urban Institute. Released last month, the report found that 3.1 million Americans, at least 1.3 percent of the adult population, live in a complete education desert: They have no public university available within 25 miles nor do they have broadband service to access online classes.

Although many studies have been conducted on physical access to higher education (16.3 percent of Americans do not live near postsecondary institutions), this study was the first to look into broadband’s impact on connectivity in higher education. “Complete education deserts,” according to the study, have insufficient access to the internet, defined as less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and three Mbps for uploads (the national average is 64 Mbps for downloads and 23 Mbps for uploads). Students in complete education deserts live more than 25 miles from a college that admits at least 75 percent of applicants.

These may be conservative estimates, the institute found. The researchers used the maximum advertised speeds from DSL providers to determine how many Americans lack internet access, even though actual speeds are sometimes half as fast. Although the study found that 2.2 percent of Americans lack sufficient internet speeds, a 2016 Federal Communications Commission report says the number is closer to 10 percent. According to the education study, two out of every three online deserts are physical ones as well, so the number of Americans living in complete education deserts is likely closer to 6 or 7 percent.

This phenomenon hits Native Americans the hardest: 11.8 percent live in complete education deserts and 22.6 percent live in physical education deserts. “This study demonstrates what many Native Americans, rural Americans, and other Americans living in education deserts already know: The internet has not untethered all of us from our geographic locations,” researchers said in the report. “As long as broadband access depends on geography, place still plays an important role in access to higher education.”

Living in an education desert affects education levels, income, and overall quality of life. The median income for an individual who does not live in an education desert was $15,000 more than a person who does not have access to higher education ($56,500 compared to $41,000).

People who live in education deserts are also 6 percent less likely to graduate from high school and 18 percent less likely to graduate from college. Only 45 percent of people in complete education deserts are currently enrolled in college, compared to 61 percent of people who live in an area with broadband and have access to local universities.

To bridge this gap, researchers suggest the federal government help increase broadband access by funding broadband deployment projects in rural areas. Once communities have faster internet speeds, colleges could help students access higher education by continuing to provide aid for books, supplies and transportation. Community colleges could also partner with selective public and private institutions in the area to create programs that allow students to ease into a four-year program after starting at a two-year college or receiving an associate degree.

Black Women Will Be Most Affected by Janus

Janus v. AFSCME could profoundly affect the ability of public-sector workers to improve their wages and working conditions. The case threatens the right of the majority of workers to bargain with their public employer, through their democratically elected union.

While the outcome of Janus will affect about 17 million public-sector workers across the country, black women in particular could be hurt by Janus, as they are disproportionately represented in public-sector jobs. They make up 17.7 percent of public-sector workers, or about 1.5 million workers.

Black women have traditionally faced a double pay gap—a gender pay gap and a racial wage gap. EPI research has shown that black women are paid only 65 cents of the dollar that their white male counterparts are paid. However, unions help reduce these pay gaps. Working black women in unions are paid 94.9 percent of what their black male counterparts make, while nonunion black women are paid just 91 percent of their counterparts.

If the Supreme Court decides in favor of weakening unions, it will impact the future of democratic decision making in the workplace and the preservation of good, middle-class jobs in public employment that have traditionally benefited African American women who have chosen to serve the public for their careers.


Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Booed Over ‘Harvest Box’ Idea

The Trump administration’s controversial proposal to transform some Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) benefits into “America’s Harvest Box,” did not go over well at a national meeting of anti-hunger advocates.

“As with any innovative idea,” said Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Brandon Lipps, speaking at the Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington on Monday, “there are questions to be answered and details to be worked out. We want to hear from you on this.”

He did.

Lipps was met by a chorus of boos from conference attendees when he claimed the Harvest Box program would be more “efficient” (it likely wouldn’t be), and that recipients would maintain more than half of their benefits on their EBT cards so they could “supplement the staple foods in these boxes.” Some attendees even walked out of the room, and one question from the audience, about how the USDA reconciled taking away people’s foods with preserving their dignity, was drowned out by cheers and applause.

“[Agriculture] Secretary Perdue is genuinely concerned about the soon-to-be $21 trillion deficit that we have in this country,” Lipps said to more boos, and even some laughs. (According to the Congressional Budget Office, the GOP tax plan will increase the deficit by $1.4 trillion to deliver tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.)

The recently released 2018 president’s budget proposes cutting SNAP by $213.5 billion over the next decade. The idea of delivering boxes of government commodity food to SNAP recipients in the form of so-called Harvest Boxes was met with fierce criticism from anti-poverty advocates.

Conference attendee Denalerie Johnson-Faniel, director of the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank in Trenton, New Jersey, told the Prospect that the Harvest Box idea is “antiquated” and that the USDA “didn’t put enough time and energy” into actually coming up an innovative proposal. She points to the nutrition issue with the boxes, highlighting the sodium present in government foods and how the box doesn’t provide fresh produce.

“It takes away the voice of the American citizen,” Johnson-Faniel says. “People should have a decision in what they eat.”

The Overlooked Electoral Power of Voters with Disabilities

A new national poll of voters with disabilities released this week spotlights a dramatic shift in their political leanings toward Democrats. Numbering in the tens of millions, voters in the disability community boast a huge political and electoral power that could prove decisive in this year’s midterms. Yet for a group with such potentially significant electoral strength, remarkably little attention has been devoted toward learning more about their political behavior.

The poll, conducted by Greenberg Research for the nonprofit RespectAbility, reveals that more than half of registered voters identify as being a part of the disability community, whether they have a disability themselves, or they have family or close friends with disabilities. And signs point to this sizable population’s support shifting to the Democrats.

People with disabilities have on average a more negative opinion of President Donald Trump, and by a 16-point margin favor the Democratic candidate in a generic 2018 congressional ballot. “The biggest negative feelings toward the Republican Congress is among people with disabilities,” said pollster Stan Greenberg during a teleconference briefing on Tuesday. This hasn’t always been the case—in 2014, they broke for the Republicans by 11 points, and were split in 2016. “Something is happening that’s affecting the kind of even split, the swing-voter status of people with disabilities,” Greenberg added.

While their swing toward the Democrats reflects a similar nationwide anti-Trump shift, recent events—such as disability rights groups’ highly publicized protests in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office over threats to the Affordable Care Act last summer—could be pushing these voters to the left. And in the weeks since the poll was conducted in January, lawmakers have done even more to alienate disabled voters. On February 12, the White House released its 2019 budget, which cuts funding for federal disability programs. That same week, the House voted to pass the ADA Education and Reform Act, which would gut key protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 16-point Democratic advantage is especially notable when considering that voters with disabilities are, according to the poll, heavily working class and five times as likely to be unemployed and looking for work—and more likely to be “extremely interested” in the 2018 midterm elections. “There’s all kinds of reasons why these views and needs should be important to all political leaders and opinion informers, but some of that is self-interest,” said Greenberg.

The poll also measured the views of voters with disabilities on the GOP tax cut (half strongly oppose) and the ACA (they view it more favorably than people outside the disability community). But because of sample-size limitations, the poll was not broken up by race or gender, nor were certain historical comparisons available (for instance, how those voters with disabilities felt about the ACA in 2014).

Lauren Appelbaum, the communications director at RespectAbility, which works to get disability included in major national polls the same way race and gender is, says that the stigmatization of disability is a major reason that community is largely ignored by policymakers and strategists. Considering the political opinions of people with disabilities “is definitely something that pollsters should be doing,” Appelbaum told the Prospect. “This poll really shows that people should be paying attention.”

Campaign to Impeach Trump to Hold Thousands of Parties Across the U.S.

Need to Impeach, a group committed to paving the way to impeach Donald Trump, founded by billionaire activist and ex-hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, has organized thousands of people to sign up to host impeachment-themed parties over President’s Day weekend. The parties, which are planned for Saturday, February 17, will take place in every state, according to Need to Impeach.

Since the organization launched last October, 4.7 million people have pledged their support to the cause, with more than 6,500 pledging to host impeachment parties. Some members of Congress plan to host parties, while other parties are taking place in citizens’ backyards and living rooms. But the message, raising awareness about the impeachable offenses the group believes Trump has committed while in office, remains the same.

Need to Impeach lists abusing pardon power; violating the emoluments clause; conspiring to commit crimes against the United States; undermining the freedom of the press; and obstruction of justice as reasons to impeach the president.

Steyer also recently hosted a panel of mental health experts in Washington who suggested that the 25th Amendment—which says the vice president will assume the presidency if the sitting president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”—is a possible avenue for removal from office, citing concerns over the president’s mental health impairing his judgment on nuclear weapons.

“Every day, there’s so much bad news, where the Constitution is being diminished, and certainly the White House is being diminished,” says Camron Assadi, who plans to host a party in Denver. “Face-to-face interaction can create a bond and create some solidarity. Congress as it is now obviously is not standing up to Trump or taking any action,” Assadi adds. “The White House and the executive [need to] be reined in.”

Public support for impeachment is growing. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from December, 41 percent of all Americans support impeachment hearings. Democrats are more enthusiastic about the measure, with 70 percent in favor.

“A big part of the campaign is about is educating our base, our digital army, and letting them know the information they need to contact their lawmakers and make sure [they] know what their constituents want,” says Erik Olvera, a Need to Impeach spokesperson.

But congressional leaders are unlikely to take action on the measure: The most recent House vote to impeach Trump garnered only 66 congressional Democrats. Other Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, argue that pushing an impeachment process now could have a negative impact on current investigations.

Need to Impeach organizers are also using this weekend’s parties as an opportunity to plan for the midterm elections. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to flip control of the House, and two to win a majority in the Senate.

The White House’s Internal Trade War Heats Up

There’s a trade war brewing in the White House—and President Trump will soon have to choose a side.

In January, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recommended protectionist tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the specifics of which were released on Friday: Ross wants Trump to place steep tariffs and quotas on the world’s biggest dumpers of aluminum and steel—most notably, Brazil, China, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Axios quotes one anonymous “trade expert” as saying, “This would be beyond a trade war. You’re talking about blowing up the WTO [World Trade Organization].”

Robert Scott, a trade economist at the Economic Policy Institute who supports stronger trade restrictions, says such a comment is laughable. “Total U.S. steel and aluminum imports in 2017… made up less than 2 percent of total U.S. goods imports,” Scott said in an email. “If other members of the WTO want to throw out the whole deal over what amounts to a tiny share of total U.S. and world trade, then that is their problem.”

He added that a more useful response than knee-jerk alarmism about trade wars “would be to encourage other fair trading countries to join the U.S. in eliminating exports from unfairly trading nations that are the targets of these (possible) trade restrictions.”

Ross’s proposal includes a 23.5 percent tariff on aluminum from China, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam (7.7 percent on other countries) and a minimum 53 percent tariff on steel from Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Korea, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam (24 percent on other countries). There would also be quotas on aluminum and steel imports, limiting countries to 2017 export levels or lower, depending on the country.

The issue of trade protectionism is fueling an internal war among Trump’s top advisers. The so-called globalist wing, including Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin, Rex Tillerson, and James Mattis, are all vehemently opposed to imposing tariffs that they worry would spark a trade war that would upset global markets and aggravate diplomatic relations. The protectionist wing—including Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer—occupies a lonely island within the administration.

Under U.S. trade law, the president has 90 days after Ross’s January recommendations to take some type of action. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to crack down on Chinese trade manipulation—namely steel and aluminum dumping—and to restore U.S. industries, but as I reported in January, his administration has delayed and deferred action through his first year in office.

Trump, of course, notoriously flip-flops his positions based on the last person he spoke with, and it’s unclear which way he is leaning. He has already shown a willingness to implement tariffs on washing machines and solar panels. The question is whether he would defy his top military, diplomatic, and economic advisers on such a critical issue.

This was the populist fight that Steve Bannon hoped for when he was still in the White House. Trump has until April to make a final decision. Until then, the White House’s internal trade war is sure to intensify.