Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

SNAP Work Requirements in Farm Bill Would Increase Hunger, Not Employment

There has been shockingly little discussion about provisions in the House Farm Bill that would drastically alter the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, and cut or eliminate benefits for about two million people. The bill is set to be voted on today (unless the House Freedom Caucus stalls it to prioritize an immigration vote).

SNAP already has work requirements that largely affect adults without children, but Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee, without any Democratic support or input, have moved forward with a bill that contains harsh new requirements for families with children, requiring recipients to diligently document work hours—at least 20 hours per week—every month.

Republicans and Trump administration officials have pointed to two studies of similar reforms in Kansas and Maine as proof that such requirements are effective in helping people find work. But an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has found that those studies are misleading because they use incomplete or misleading data. For example, the studies only looked at work rates of adults after they had been kicked off the program for not meeting new work requirements, ignoring the fact that they had worked at comparable rates even before they were sanctioned off the program.

The House bill would “undermine almost two decades of progress in simplifying, streamlining, and modernizing SNAP so it’s easy for families to use,” said Dottie Rosenbaum, senior fellow at CBPP and author of a new report on the Farm Bill, in a call with reporters.

The bill would also reinstate a “benefits cliff,” where families could lose their SNAP benefits as soon as they report higher earnings, pushing economic security further out of reach. Another provision makes it mandatory for mothers on SNAP to pursue unpaid child care, which could pressure domestic abuse survivors to rely on their abusers or leave the program. And these requirements would significantly increase SNAP’s bureaucracy and make the program more expensive and harder to navigate.

A better way to help people find good work would be to create voluntary, intensive job training programs. But these programs are extremely expensive to operate, and the funds on offer in the Republican bill don’t amount to much—just about $360 per person, per year. A good job training program that builds skills and leads to solid employment costs between $7,000 and $14,000 per person, per year, according to Rosenbaum.  

At a May 8 panel on the Farm Bill at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway claimed that he didn’t want to “force SNAP on anybody who doesn’t want to meet these requirements”—instead, it seems, he’d rather force people who need help off of it. 

James Comey Talks Trump, Rudy, and Hillary

As the White House continues to blast his very existence, former FBI director James Comey rides the wave atop The New York Times bestseller list. His book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, is a tell-not-as-much-you’d-really-like-to-know account of his law enforcement career and its abrupt denouement courtesy of the 45th president. 

Predictably, Comey did not offer up much of anything new (want more about Roger Stone and Wikileaks? Keep waiting) during his recent conversation with The Washington’s Post’s Carol Leonnig in front of a rapt audience of roughly 200 people at the newspaper’s downtown headquarters. But a former FBI director is hardly going to drop stunning revelations during a public event at one of the country’s top newspapers.

Yet simply observing one of the principal dramatis personae of the Trump Era was worth the price of admission (free). The smooth, controlled, lanky ex-G-man swerved around probing questions and doubled down on his damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t defense of his Hillary Clinton’s email server decision-making.

He did discuss how the bureau wrestled with the rogue president. Asked whether FBI and Justice Department officials could ever have educated Trump on government norms and traditions, Comey responded: Maybe, but likely not. “It’s possible we could have tried to offer more instruction,” said Comey. “But he’s utterly uninterested in you telling him things about how he should do his job.” 

As Americans know well by now, what animates Trump is loyalty uber alles. Of his infamous dinner with the allegiance-demanding president, Comey returned again to the issue of educating an unschooled president, emphasizing that Trump is more interested in “a personal, transactional loyalty” than understanding anything about norms of the relationship between of the president, the FBI, and the Justice Department.

Comey’s comments about Rudy Giuliani set the room set the room chuckling as he described how impressed he was as a young prosecutor working for Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“I loved that my boss was on magazine covers, standing on courtroom steps with his hands on his hips,” Comey said. “It fired me up.” But there was a dark side to Giuliani’s confidence, too: He didn’t have much humility, Comey concluded. “It’s really important for a leader to have that balance.”

Comey saved some of his harshest commentary for Clinton’s email “excesses.” He wasn’t aware, Comey noted, that any of her aides had firmly counseled her against installing the ill-fated email server.

“We didn’t investigate her leadership style,” said Comey, “but [her style] at least raises the prospect that she created a culture around herself as a leader that people wouldn’t tell her when she is full of it; it’s really important as leader to do that.”

As for his take on Trump’s complicity in the swampy dealings consuming his presidency and the cavalcade of problematic associations, from Vladimir Putin to Stormy Daniels, Comey was pure prosecutor: “It’s always struck me as strange when someone always continually denies something—it makes me interested,” he said. “His continual denial of something that’s being investigated by some of the best people in the country is strange.”

The most disturbing aspect of this historical moment for the former FBI director is the erosion of country’s norms around lying. Unlike so many news reporters and pundits who skirt the issue, Comey went straight for the jugular: “The president of the United States lies constantly,” he said, and Americans have become “numb to it,” or worse, “imitate it.”

Students Emphasize Full Scope of Gun Violence in Latest Walkout

Whether the current push for stricter gun control will translate into tangible results at the polls remains an open question. But more than two months since the Parkland shooting, it’s clear that a large swath of America’s youth remains active, engaged, and eager to make their voices heard in November.

Last Friday, for the second time in as many months, teenagers around the country engaged in coordinated school walkouts as they renewed the call for Republicans in Congress to enact stricter gun control measures. The protest, which took place on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting and included students from at least 2,600 schools nationwide, followed closely on the heels of the National School Walkout on March 14 and the broader nationwide March for Our Lives protests on March 24.

In Washington, the student-activists gathered in front of the White House and then marched to the U.S. Capitol, where a number of the walkout leaders spoke about issues facing all victims of gun violence—not just the people who die in school shootings. While longtime gun violence activists have welcomed the recent wave of marches and calls for reform precipitated by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, some have expressed warranted frustration that the current movement only gathered strength in response to a tragedy in a relatively affluent, largely white community. Multiple speakers pointed out that far less attention is paid to the high rates of gun deaths among African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color.

Another speaker, Rosie Silvers, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland, discussed what she called “the missing dialogue of this movement”: the nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths that are suicides and the high rates of suicide in the LGBT community. “Gun violence, suicide, and the LGBT community are forever intertwined,” Silvers said. Criticizing those political leaders who try to pass off gun violence as primarily a mental health issue, Silvers added, “Every single country around the world suffers from mental illness, but only we suffer from this epidemic of gun violence.”

The students also wanted to send the message that they intend to keep the pressure on politicians into November—still eons away in political terms. Jay Falk, a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, turned her time at the podium into a de facto voter registration drive. “This is not a moment, it is a movement. You have to keep showing up,” she said, before telling participants to take out their phones and text a hotline that would help them find out how to register to vote. Many people obliged.

Aya Laoufir, a junior at Washington Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, said she and her peers are confident that the current movement will maintain its momentum. “A lot of us are gonna be turning 18 in the next few months,” she told the Prospect. “I think it’ll make a big difference at the polls.”

Rosie Couture, an eighth-grader at Arlington’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School described the effect that the national conversation about guns has had on her and her peers: “Parkland was a big wakeup call for us,” she said. “I hate to say it, but I was so ignorant about [gun violence] before the Parkland shooting.” While still too young to vote, Couture added that as soon as she turns 18, she “100 percent” intends to in order to make her voice heard.

The Abortion Generation Gap

A new poll from PRRI has found wide generational gaps on issues of abortion, reproductive health, and sexual assault.

“As this younger generation continues to flex its political muscles—as we saw in the response to the Parkland shooting—they could also reshape the national conversation on women’s health issues,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones in a statement.

The poll, released today, found that nearly all Americans believe that health insurance plans, both private and government-provided, should cover birth control and testing for sexually transmitted infections. Fewer than half of those surveyed, however, believe abortion should be covered under most health-care plans. Though women were generally more in favor of abortion access and wider health-care coverage, and were more likely to prioritize the issue when deciding how to vote, the bigger gaps on questions of abortion were those of age, as well as education level and political affiliation.

Of people aged 18 to 29, 65 percent said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And while most Americans’ views on legality have remained relatively unchanged over the past decade, younger Americans were more likely to say their views on abortion have changed in recent years—overwhelmingly to a position of greater support for abortion rights, perhaps mirroring the broad leftward shift of the millennial generation.

The poll also uncovered a wide generation gap on perceptions of how difficult abortions are to obtain. Despite the fact that restrictive state policies have closed clinics across the country, sometimes forcing women to travel days or across state lines to get the procedure, nearly half of Americans said that obtaining an abortion in their community was not that difficult. But here, too, age was a stronger predictor of perceptions of availability than even gender or partisan affiliation. Nearly half (49 percent) of young people thought that local abortions were at least somewhat difficult to obtain, compared with just 26 percent of people over the age of 65. And while more than two-thirds (69 percent) of young people believe there should be abortion providers in their community, only 46 percent of seniors felt the same.

While the differences between millennials and seniors are the most glaring, the survey also highlighted different levels of support for abortion rights by race and religion, with black Americans generally more supportive and white evangelicals often, predictably, an outlier in their opposition. A pronounced gender divide also exists in perceptions of sexual assault and harassment cases. While the majority of Americans believe unreported or disbelieved cases to be a bigger problem than the specter of false accusations, nearly a third of men think that false accusations are more worrisome, especially Republican men (41 percent).

“Given this,” PRRI Director of Strategic Engagement Carolyn Davis said in a statement, “the [Republican] party is not likely to prioritize effectively combating sexual harassment or assault unless the women of the party push the GOP to action.”

Whether that is likely remains a mystery, but it’s a safe bet that it will be a while before the Republican Party catches up to the majority of the country—and especially to the younger generation—if it catches up at all.

The Trump Tax Cuts Should Be Repealed, Not Made Even Worse

With Tax Day here, the Republican Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which included large cuts to both individual and corporate income taxes, remains front and center in the national debate. Republicans in Congress chose to make the corporate tax changes permanent, while phasing out most tax changes to the individual tax code by 2027. They made this choice to comply with the arcane rules of budget reconciliation, which do not allow legislation that increases budget deficits outside the ten-year budget window. The decision to use the reconciliation process was driven by the fact that reconciliation requires only a majority vote, thus making their proposed tax cuts filibuster-proof in the Senate.

Now, having made the choice to prioritize corporate tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich, and also having made the choice to eschew any pretense of corralling bipartisan support for that tax bill and to ram it through on a party-line vote, House Republicans want a mulligan. They are now calling for another bill that would make the individual tax cuts in the TCJA permanent. This one would require a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, but they’re hoping that they can spin the individual cuts in the TCJA as “middle-class” tax cuts that some Democrats will support.

This spin is false. Using data from the Tax Policy Center, we can compare the distribution of the individual income tax cuts from the TCJA to the distribution of overall income in the U.S. economy. If the distribution of tax cuts is more skewed than the distribution of income, the cuts will exacerbate income inequality. The chart below shows that, even though the bottom 40 percent—households making less than $48,600—takes home 13.1 percent of total income, their share of the tax cuts is only 6.5 percent. Households making between $48,600 and $307,900 almost (but not quite) receive as high a share of the tax cuts as their share of income. While the top 5 percent—those making more than $307,900—receive a share of tax cuts substantially larger than their share of overall income.

All told, the entire bottom 95 percent get less of a share of the tax cuts than their share of income. Only the top 5 percent get a larger share of the tax cuts than their share of income. While the top 5 percent account for 28.6 percent of income, they get 40.3 percent of the individual income tax cuts from the TCJA. This is absolutely not a “middle-class” tax cut. It’s not quite as outrageously skewed toward the top as the corporate cuts in the TCJA, a low bar to clear indeed.

The priority for tax policy going forward shouldn’t be to make the regressive individual cuts in the TCJA permanent, it should instead be to roll back the even more regressive business tax cuts in that legislation. In the short run, the corporate tax cuts flow entirely to shareholders—and the top 1 percent holds 40 percent of total stocks. In the long run, between 75 percent and 82 percent of the benefits of corporate tax cuts typically benefit owners of capital—and the richest 1 percent of households claim roughly 54 percent of total capital income.

The TCJA is already egregiously tilted toward the rich and big corporations. At best, a second pass this fall that makes its individual tax cuts permanent would just lock in further tax cuts that disproportionately skew to the rich. And even worse, it may end up a Trojan horse intended to smuggle in even more regressive Republican priorities—like lower capital gains taxes. There’s no improving the TCJA. It should be repealed.

Worried About the FBI? No.

The night after the news broke about the FBI collecting material from Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office and hotel room, a friend who is a prominent social scientist and a persistent liberal, asked me: Do you have any qualms about the FBI poring through a lawyer’s files? 

My honest, spontaneous answer was: No.

On hearing the news about the warrant issued for the search of Cohen’s premises, I could honestly say that I’d felt nothing but joy that laws are being enforced by an apparatus unswayed by the gold-plated would-be king in the White House.

My considered answer was again: No qualms. None.

I am eternally mindful of the depredations of the FBI in the 1960s and early 1970s. I am steeped in the knowledge that the FBI conducted illegal, depraved wiretaps of Martin Luther King Jr., and that a high FBI official, in 1964, sent to King’s home an anonymous letter not so subtly suggesting that King commit suicide. The letter was accompanied by tapes of King’s extramarital sessions. It ended: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. … You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

I am equally mindful—thanks to the research of the historian Arthur Eckstein—of the FBI’s readiness, in 1970, to open concentration camps for American radicals.

So why do I feel no qualms about the FBI excavating Michael Cohen’s files? Because J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is not the FBI of the 21st century. Because in the current circumstances, the FBI operates as a professional civil service enforcing the law. In the case of the Cohen search, the agents had a lawfully issued search warrant.

Is the FBI above suspicion? No. There is a notable exception to its 21st-century by-the-book standards: The New York City FBI claque that operated with Rudy Giuliani’s connivance to pile up dirt against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. (Giuliani’s “most remarkable claim,” The New York Times’s Jim Dwyer reported on November 3, 2016, “is that he has a pipeline into the Federal Bureau of Investigation and that agents tell him they are ‘outraged’ that they have not been able to bring Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to justice.”) Arguably, the lobbying of this claque weighed on James Comey when he decided to intervene to damn Clinton by releasing, on October 28, 2016, the nothingburger about Clinton’s emails found on the laptop computer of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

But I am aware of no shred of evidence that the FBI failed to operate in a lawful, aboveboard way in searching the premises of Michael Cohen.

Charges that “the deep state” is acting illegally to undermine the depraved regime of Donald Trump—one of its regular depravities being the slathering of opposition as “fake news,” “deep state,” “enemies of the American people”—are without any visible foundation. Which is why I am thankful that the FBI acted lawfully with respect to Michael Cohen, and that the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover is safely ensconced in hell.


Maryland Bills Mandate Better Health Care for Pregnant Inmates

Last week, the Maryland General Assembly approved a bill that would require all state correctional facilities to have written medical-care policies for incarcerated pregnant women—the first of its kind in the country, according to NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.

Under the new legislation, which goes into effect in October, all facilities must submit to a legislative commission—and, importantly, to incarcerated patients—a written policy regarding things like prenatal care, abortion access, and labor and delivery. Incarcerated women are often afraid to ask for needed care like pregnancy testing or emergency miscarriage management, says Diana Philip, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, or they might not even be aware of their rights. The requirement of a written policy clarifies for both patients and prison employees what kind of care pregnant inmates are entitled to receive. “I think one of the great things about this bill is that the person who is pregnant will be handed that policy,” Philip told the Prospect.

The state legislature also passed a bill that would provide inmates with free menstrual hygiene products. “Incarcerated women have limited resources and are often forced to deal with poor conditions,” Philip said in a statement. While she acknowledges that there remains the challenge of monitoring facilities’ adherence to policies, “[b]oth of these bills take a step in the right direction to ensure their basic needs are met.”

As states across the nation try to handle their growing female prison populations, reproductive-rights advocates have been shining a light on the treatment of detained and incarcerated women who are pregnant. According to New York magazine, six states (Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Utah) still allow the shackling of female inmates while they’re in labor, a practice that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says “may not only compromise health care but is demeaning and rarely necessary.” North Carolina recently revised its policy on restraints, prohibiting the use of leg or waist restraints when the inmate is in labor, and Connecticut lawmakers have introduced a bill that would bar such restraints during pregnancy or the postpartum period, and prohibit the use of any restraints during labor. The Connecticut bill would also require the state to provide incarcerated women with menstrual hygiene products free of charge.

Pregnant women in immigration detention have also struggled with lack of quality medical care, their numbers having risen since the Trump administration’s decision in December to reverse the federal policy of releasing pregnant women from custody. Immigrant-rights and reproductive-rights groups have expressed concern about inadequate medical care, and advocates have sounded the alarm about Scott Lloyd, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, who has repeatedly attempted to prevent undocumented pregnant teenagers from seeking abortions.

Welfare Drug Testing Promotes Stereotypes, Not Efficiency

Despite a clear lack of evidence of significant drug use among welfare recipients, lawmakers in at least two states are moving forward with plans to require drug screening for individuals seeking assistance. State legislators in Illinois and Iowa have introduced bills that would make drug testing a prerequisite for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the U.S. cash assistance program for very poor families. If passed, the states would join more than a dozen others in mandating drug testing for welfare applicants.  

But the outcomes of those existing state testing programs contradict the harmful and racist stereotype of the drug-addicted welfare user.

Over the past several years, proposals to drug test the poor applying for or receiving TANF have been quite popular among a number of conservative states—and some states have begun attempting to expand drug testing into other assistance programs, too. Wisconsin drug tests not just TANF applicants, but has moved forward with a plan to also test Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) applicants (without federal approval, which may be illegal). Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker even wants to drug test those who apply for Medicaid—potentially barring people from health care when they could perhaps need it most.

The Illinois bill would also require that SNAP applicants be drug tested, pending federal approval. (Not being a conservative stronghold, it’s probably unlikely that the Illinois proposal will pass.) And the Iowa bill proposes drug testing all recipients of public assistance.

However, the results of these drug-testing initiatives have amounted to a wasteful use of funds when one considers how few welfare recipients actually test positive for drugs. An analysis by ThinkProgress found that, in 2016, 13 states spent $1.3 million on welfare drug testing, with just 363 people testing positive.

Since the data don't exactly justify the expense of these programs, one should consider other reasons that conservative legislators keep advancing legislation like this—namely, to attempt to justify a certain narrative. Without “immorality” and other individual characteristics to blame for poverty, what’s left? A systemic canker—that threatens the American narrative of hard work and equal opportunity.

A Failed Fight for $8.50 Energizes the Fight for $15 in Louisiana

When a bill to raise the Louisiana minimum wage by just $1.25 failed, advocates didn’t reduce their demands—in fact, they did the opposite.

On Tuesday, the Louisiana Senate voted against a bill that would have raised Louisiana’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour by 2020. “Not advancing this legislation is a step backwards for our families and our children who live in poverty but want to work,” said Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards.

But just two days later, supporters of a $15-an-hour bill introduced by State Representative Joe Bouie testified in a hearing before the House Labor and Industrial Committee—a bold statement given the clear leanings of the legislature. The committee unsurprisingly rejected the bill, but the hearing was an opportunity for advocates to make their case in front of committee members.

“Can any of you live on $290 a week?” said Ben Zucker, co-director of advocacy organization Step Up Louisiana. “Too many of these low-wage workers working for multinational corporations ... making record corporate profits come into our state and pay our workers so low they can’t afford to eat,” Zucker said, as reported by New Orleans’s Gambit. Louisiana is one of five states without a state minimum wage, so the federal minimum of $7.25 is in effect.

State Senator Troy Carter of New Orleans, who sponsored the $8.50 bill, has sponsored minimum-wage legislation for the past three years, but each attempt has failed. He has also sponsored a bill that would allow voters to determine whether to pass a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage. (As of 2016, 76 percent of Louisianans support raising the wage.) Bouie’s bill was the first $15 minimum-wage legislation introduced in the Louisiana legislature.

One in five people in Louisiana lives in poverty, and the state has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, as do Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi, which also don’t have state minimum wages. Sixteen other states have wage floors that match the federal minimum of $7.25.

Senate Democrats Warn Mitch McConnell: Don’t Try to Weaken the ADA

On Thursday, 42 Senate Democrats joined Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois to pledge to block a vote on the ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620), a House bill that would gut the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act by weakening enforcement provisions that ensure accessibility in public accommodations.

In a signed letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Democrats noted that the supposed purpose of H.R. 620—to prevent “drive-by” lawsuits—is not actually addressed by the bill, since the ADA does not permit monetary relief in the form of damages or settlements. Instead, H.R. 620 gives businesses 120 days to make “substantial progress” toward complying with the law, and only after the business has received written notice from an affected person with a disability. When the ADA was passed, as the letter says, “[t]he expectation was that businesses would make themselves accessible before people with disabilities showed up … rather than waiting until receiving a notice that people with disabilities have been excluded before starting to think about complying with the law.”

Duckworth, who lost her legs while serving in Iraq, wrote a Washington Post op-ed in October 2017 condemning H.R. 620, and spoke against it on the House floor in February, just before it passed that chamber on mostly party lines. Proponents of H.R. 620 include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the retail and hotel industries, which claim that the bill protects businesses from complaints over minor ADA infractions. “We reject in the strongest terms,” wrote the senators, “the offensive suggestion by supporters of H.R. 620 that a civil rights violation denying access to a public space could ever be ‘minor.’”

Disability-rights groups have been vocal in their opposition to H.R. 620, which McConnell could bring up for a vote at any time. The letter, signed by 43 Democratic senators (all except Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Bill Nelson of Florida) signals to McConnell that the coalition has enough votes to filibuster any attempt to bring H.R. 620 to the floor.