Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Communities to Students: Let us help with your massive student loan debt!

Next American City has a great article on how cities and states are attempting to attract young people to their regions through incentives tied to student loan debt repayment.  The “brain drain” of many older industrial cities has plagued these places for decades.  The article shines a spotlight on a number of state and local initiatives that aim to both reverse this hemorrhaging of young, educated people to certain cities through offering students the opportunity for help in paying off their student loans – a policy issue that is only going to become more severe over time.  

Just recently news was release that American students have racked up over $150 billion in loan debt.  Over the past decade, student loan debt has soared 275%.  This has become an epidemic.  Just think, if many students have to pay back voluminous quantities of loans it delays their being able to purchase a car, a house, various consumer items, and most importantly to save for the future.   And this all relies on the student finding a decent job following college or graduate school.  

Most notably, the New Jersey Assembly introduced a bill last month that would provide financial incentives to recent college grads who move to certain parts of the state, including Camden, Trenton and Jersey City.  The bill is entitled, the Urban Scholar Revitalization Initiative, and it would offer up to $7,000 in reimbursement for tuition fees.  The policy of the program is straightforward in that the program would be administered with New Jersey’s already existing Urban Enterprise Zone Authority, “allowing businesses that receive tax credits under the program to earn further credits for helping recruit more young people to the program.”

Not wanting to be left out, the Midwest is getting involved too.  The state of Kansas, with 50 participating counties (called Rural Opportunity Zones rather than municipalities) will waive income tax for five years and provide up to $15,000 in loan reimbursements.  By October 160 people will already have received payments as new residents of the state.  Their neighbor to the north, Nebraska is now considering a similar program; a bill is on the 2012 legislative agenda.

Whether or not these policies will be successful in revitalizing communities is yet unknown – and is somewhat controversial.  On one hand, I can see it serving a mutual good in that students are able to pay down their loans in places that are more than glad to have them.  On the other it seems that these incentives are going to many students who would have been moving to these areas anyway as most of the participants that qualified for the Kansas program had regional ties.  Further, there are a myriad of other ways in which money could be spent which focus on young persons entering the workforce, including job training, educational scholarships, and mentoring programs.  

As Sean Andrew Chen writes in the NAC article, “If the program fails, it would be yet another example of wasted money that could have gone to services such as police and education.  But if it works, it could help bring much-needed investment and serve as a future model for other struggling cities.”  My guess is that these programs might bring some young people into these places, however the larger structural issues related to brain drain and displacement will continue unabated.  It is important to not only address the symptoms but also to confront the root cause.  Comprehensive strategies to address the difficult issues facing these communities are needed, success requires it, and whether or not these incentive policies are a significant aspect of a successful strategy – remains to be seen.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Importance of Medicaid

Medicaid is crucial in supporting low-income households in obtaining healthcare coverage and provides health insurance to nearly 60 million children and families. Since Medicaid has strict rules for eligibility, the expansion of Medicaid benefits those who had not been previously eligible for any type of affordable health coverage. Under the current eligibility requirements, state Medicaid programs must cover children under the age of 6 living in families with incomes below 133% of the federal poverty level and children ages 6-18 with family incomes below 100% of the FPL. However, states can decide whether or not to extend eligibility further. For example, states must cover children up to 18 years of age, but have the option to cover 19 and 20 year olds. In addition, states must provide coverage to pregnant women with family incomes below 133% of the FPL and parents with incomes below 50% of the FPL, but have the option to provide coverage to these groups above the minimums.
Adults who are not disabled, pregnant, or elderly, and have no minor children generally have been excluded from Medicaid.  In the past, to extend Medicaid to these adults, states had to receive a waiver and could not receive additional federal Medicaid funds for this coverage; instead, states needed to redirect existing federal Medicaid funds or create program savings to offset the cost of the coverage.  As a result, the expansion of Medicaid will cover an additional 22.3 million uninsured individuals with incomes below 138% of the FPL.
Medicaid is jointly funded by the federal government and states. To finance the expansion, the federal government will cover 100% of the states’ cost in covering newly eligible Medicaid recipients, then phase down its federal contribution to 95% between  2014 and 2019, then again to 90% in 2020. Since April 2010, California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington, and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid to low-income adults and have been able to cover an additional 600,000 people.  These states were able to preserve, expand, and strengthen coverage for their low-income residents.
 According to The Urban Institute, if a state does not implement the expansion, some individuals would receive federal tax credits and other subsidies instead of Medicaid; however, cost-sharing requirements would be higher. Federal tax credits and subsidies would not be available for most people with incomes below the federal poverty line, which means uninsured individuals living above poverty can receive help, but those living below poverty would not. Rejecting federal funds and refraining from the expansion could have adverse impacts on more than 27 million uninsured Americans with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty level.
For state policymakers, it is important to consider the economic and societal benefits of providing healthcare to those who currently lack access to affordable coverage and to reduce coverage disparities.  
For state policy strategies to ensure that children are healthy, visit 

Eliminating Food Deserts: A Policy Solution

Much has been made about food deserts over the last few years, and rightfully so.  These spaces in our cities and states are where healthy, affordable food is difficult or at times impossible to obtain.  Food deserts often correlate with low housing values and populations with marginalized SES.  Generally, the wealthier the neighborhood, the more choice its residents have for healthy eating.  Increasingly, more states and cities have been confronting the myriad of public health concerns that emerge from food deserts through a number of interesting policy solutions.  The Economic Research Service at the Department of Agriculture even has a Food Desert Locator for individuals and families to see how their neighborhood stacks up.  In this entry I will shed some light on one idea in particular that makes fresh, health, and affordable food available for children and families for who access has been lacking. 

One policy intervention that I have become increasingly smitten by are fresh food corner stores.  These have popped up in a number of areas and their appeal is palpable in these communities.  In Louisville, Kentucky, the Healthy in a Hurry Corner Stores started appearing in 2009; there are currently six stores operating throughout the city.  These stores stock fresh, affordable produce for residents of food deserts, essentially allowing a healthy choice to be an easy choice.  Indeed, many of those living in poor neighborhoods don’t have easy access to private transportation and so while they may want to eat healthy foods, it’s difficult for them to drive the long distances outside their neighborhood for more options.  Healthy in a Hurry Corner Stores enable good decision making through ease of use.  How were these stores funded?  In Louisville, city officials used an award of $7.9 million through a Health and Human Services Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. 

Perhaps the leader in this healthy corner store movement is Philadelphia and the Philly organization The Food Trust.  Their Healthy Corner Store Initiative is funded through a range of support from philanthropy including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and state policy such as the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative which encourages the development of food retail in underserved Pennsylvania communities.  Through the leadership of Rep. Dwight Evans, the Fresh Food Financing Initiatives serves as a model grant and loan program stewarded by a public private partnership consisting of the Reinvestment Fund, the Food Trust, and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition.  The results speak for themselves.  According to the Food Trust, “the Fresh Food Financing Initiative has provided funding for 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties, creating or preserving more than 5,023 jobs and improving access to healthy food for more than half a million people.”  Through the success and wide publicity of Philadelphia’s efforts, other cities are jumping on board including Chicago and Seattle.  In addition the Healthy Corner Stores Network has been created as an umbrella site for the variety of initiatives across the country.  Many in government, social policy, and public health have asked will these cities attempts at eradicating food deserts work?  My contention is whether they completely eradicate food deserts is beside the point.  Indeed, there is no silver bullet in these matters.  What they are doing is bringing healthy and affordable produce to neighborhoods in dire need of these choices.  And that is a big step in the right direction.           

To read more about the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative as well as the Federal Fresh Food Financing Initiative see our issue brief, Aligning Resources and Results:  How Communities and Policymakers Collaborated to Create a National Program

To learn more about what state policymakers can do to increases access to affordable healthy food read our report, in partnership with Leadership for Healthy Communities, on Preventing Childhood Obesity or click here. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Opportunity Gap: Schools and Equity

The news organization ProPublica is a well known nonprofit newsroom that produces investigatory journalism in the public interest.  They were the first online news source to win a Pulitzer in 2010.  One piece in particular that I would like to craft a conversation around today is their web tool entitled, The Opportunity Gap: Is Your State Providing Equal Access to Education? 

Decades after Brown v. Board, education in our country is still tied to geography.  America’s de facto education policy is simple:  If you want good public schools for your kids you move to a zip code which has good schools.  We are allowing a market-based laissez-faire system to determine if, and to the degree, our children will have access to a quality education.  Rather than being institutions of greater social and economic mobility, schools often serve as engines of the status quo.  Students who live in poor neighborhoods and attend under-resourced schools are less likely to be successful than their counterparts located in higher income communities.  This gets to the heart of the difference between the achievement gap and the opportunity gap in America.  The achievement gap puts the focus squarely on the child and their ability to achieve, whereas the opportunity gap places the focus on the contextual social, economic, and political forces that create pathways for that child to achieve.  A focus on the opportunity gap, leads to the question:  Are states providing fair and equitable access toward a quality education for all kids?

To address this question, ProPublica provides a database to access data on the opportunity gap specifically.  It then provides equal opportunity indicators such as Inexperienced Teachers, Number of AP Courses, Students who get free/reduced lunch, Students who take at least one AP course, Students who take advanced math, and compares this data with both the School District and the State.  Further, there is a breakdown of racial demographics by school, district, and state.  

I looked up my high school, Ballard High in Louisville, Kentucky.  I found, to my expectation, that Ballard had less inexperienced teachers than either the comparable district or the state in Kentucky and more AP courses offered.  A significantly lower percentage of students at Ballard received free/reduced lunch than either at the district or the state.  

ProPublica also looks at how states compare at providing high poverty and wealthier schools equal access to AP classes, chemistry, physics, advanced math, and gifted/talent classes.  States like Maryland and Kansas did poorly at achieving equitable distribution of these opportunities whereas states such as Minnesota, and Delaware did well.  

What are the takeaways for policymakers from this tool?  Well, one is for simply creating awareness.  Our schools are, essentially, a reflection of our society; a society that remains inequitable and segregated by socio-economic status.  Many policymakers know this already and, in turn, argue and attempt to craft policies toward the amelioration of the status quo, however there is a vast and growing body of research in this realm and better connecting policy to this research is critical.  For instance, for a number of years now, Maryland has been lauded for having the nation’s best public school system.  However, in examining the ProPublica database, we see that while a great public school system, the spoils of that quality is distributed relatively unequally compared to other states.  This brings up questions of how states wish to see their resources allocated and how important an equitable allocation of resources is for citizens and policymakers.

Secondly, this website changes the language and framing of the debate from “achievement gap” rhetoric to an opportunity gap.  Our educational leaders are awash in language of “leave no children behind” and the usage of metrics and ever-increasing reams of data to measure “accountability” through a variety of standardized tests.  In turn, the achievement gap has become part of our daily lexicon.  Words shape how we view the world.  Words shape how we confront challenges in our lives and our society.  In short, words matter because words lead to real action, policy shifts, and results that may benefit children and their families.  Shifting from an achievement to an opportunity framing aids in confronting the root causes of these issues rather than putting the focus on an individual child’s achievement.  If we as a society care about all our children, we should care about the pathways these kids have for opportunities rather than a more narrow definition of “achievement” based on quantitative testing.  Data tools such as ProPublica’s database now makes it easier for states to create policies around the opportunity gap and benchmark themselves against other states.  This is public interest journalism at its highest and best use.



Thursday, July 5, 2012

Small is Beautiful: How Americans View their Institutions

In driving to work the other day, a story on NPR was being talked about within the context of what institutions, we as Americans, have the most confidence in these days.  The host was interviewing a member of the Gallup organization and he referenced this graph.  As reflected in the data, the military is the institution that inspires the most confidence in American’s eyes.  Second is small business.  At the bottom of the confidence spectrum are banks, big business, and HMOs, only to be beaten at the very dredges by Congress.  So small business is next to the top when it comes to confidence levels, and big business is essentially next to the bottom.  A primary difference in these institutions is the word “small” and “big.”  Which brings me to my first point:  American’s seem to have an affinity in their institutions for the underdog.  This viewpoint of the small business speaks to the way very large businesses advertise, for instance Walmart, a company with close to $500 billion in annual revenue and 2.2 million employees, advertises itself as your “neighborhood market” or “neighborhood pharmacy.”  Big business, based upon the preferences of the American public, have an incentive to try and make themselves appear smaller and more localized.  What then, are the lessons for policy given these attitudes?  

One lesson I would argue is the need to localize broad, far-reaching policy in digestible and specialized stories.  The Supreme Court ruled last week that, in general, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is constitutional.  Despite the ruling to let the law largely stand, I think it reasonable to suggest that a public opinion on  health reform is sharply divided.  A Quinnipiac Poll from February notes that voters say “50 - 39 percent, including 51 - 37 percent among independent voters, that the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn Obama's health care reform law.”  This isn’t exactly a stirring endorsement, despite the fact that many Americans would be aided through this act.  The narrative of Obamacare is the “big government” narrative; the notion that the government is attempting to interject itself in citizens’ lives as Big Brother.  Lots of people remain detached and removed from the scale of the policy, and are not able to see how or where they fit.  Leading many to suggest that the Administration didn’t do a great job of selling this health care achievement.  How could they have done better?  How in general can policymakers craft better messages around the benefits of legislation?  Well, in part, through strategies reflected in the Gallup poll; breaking down the policy into bits and pieces and then, building a narrative that coincides with American’s views about how they want their government served.

How does this “smaller” strategy manifest in state policy?  States have a role to play in thinking about how American’s view their organizations and institutions in crafting cogent messaging through a “small” strategy.  For instance, Ohio, through the organization Ohio Citizen Action just recently shuttered its Money in Politics Project after 18 years. On the face of it, this would seem to be a rather untimely blow, however rather than devoting an entire project space to the money in politics issue they have decided to take a different, and in my opinion, savvier tactic.  As they say,

The organization is now strengthening its focus on pollution -- coal, fracking, and alternatives to the proposed Cleveland incinerator. We’ve just had a string of victories, on Baard Energy, Cincinnati electric aggregation, the Englewood canvassing case and FirstEnergy’s four Lake Erie coal plants. We want to keep the victories coming. The more focused you are, the more likely you are to succeed.

Of course, political corruption is part of most pollution issues. We’ll still be wrestling with money in politics, but on a campaign by campaign basis, not as a separate project.

Indeed, rather than view the money in politics issue as a separate issue, siloed from the day in and day out of policy and politics, Ohio Citizen Action has re-conceptualized the money in politics project as a thread throughout their entire work, weaving it throughout their campaigns.  I would argue, this is a beautifully smart, necessary, and “small” change to make.  Small because, similarly to Americans’ preferences and attitudes as touched on above, Ohio Citizen Action is looking at the relationship between how the pieces of money in politics relate amongst issue areas rather than the large morass of money and politics unto itself.  It’s an integrative strategy rather than an isolated one.  More generally, Ohio Citizen Action is thinking more strategically about the ways money is connected and embedded throughout the political landscape.

The future belongs to those that can forge new and cross-sectional alliances to both imbue confidence and respect amongst shared ideals and re-assert the ways in which we as Americans share much more than that which divides us.  Let’s try and craft policies that reflect this reality.