Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why Boehner and Obama need to refocus on jobs -- Feb. 24, 2011 column

The House Republicans passed deep budget cuts that could cost thousands of government workers their jobs, but House Speaker John Boehner shed not a tear.

“So be it,” he said. “We’re broke.”

President Obama, a Democrat, is better at showing he cares, right?

Not exactly. As Obama travels coast-to-coast, rhapsodizing about “winning the future” with exciting new jobs, he rarely meets with or hears from people still suffering with past job losses.

Wait a minute. The politicians may want to sweep unemployment aside while they deal with the deficit and other issues, but polls show that most Americans want jobs to be our No. 1 priority.

Yes, we’ve had encouraging reports about declines in the volume of new claims for unemployment benefits, but it’s too soon to sound an all-clear on the jobs front. The nation’s overall jobless rate dropped to 9 percent last month from 10.6 percent in January 2010, but unemployment still devastates the 12.9 million Americans who are jobless and their families. About 44 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer.

Plus, some 8.4 million Americans are working part-time but would rather have full-time jobs, which often come with health insurance and other benefits.

And yet, congressional Republicans who earlier complained that Americans wanted jobs, not health care reform, now propose slashing federal programs. Some congressmen concede that these cuts, which have not passed the Senate, could lead to layoffs in the public sector. The hope is that the private sector will rebound and absorb the workers.

“They found their way into public jobs,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., according to the Associated Press. “They can find their way into private jobs.”

Boehner forwarded a letter to Obama signed by 150 economists that called for reining in federal spending to help create jobs. Economists dispute the efficacy of spending cuts for job creation, however, just as they dispute the effects of spending more.

Obama has been harshly criticized for pushing the huge stimulus package that failed to deliver a decline in joblessness, although some economists say unemployment would be far worse without the stimulus.

After his “shellacking” in the midterm elections, Obama froze federal salaries for two years. In his 2012 budget, he proposed cuts in home heating aid and other safety net programs. Courting business, the president named Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and chief executive of GE, to head his jobs council. Obama also hit the road, preaching innovation and education as keys to the new economy.

The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. reported that in eight trips since the midterm elections, “Obama – who frequently says he uses such travel to better understand the lives of Americans – has held almost no formal meetings with groups of unemployed people or organizations that advocate for them.”

The White House responded that Obama is meeting with groups and companies that create jobs, Bacon reported, and that the president has taken several steps to improve conditions for the unemployed, including extending jobless benefits in states with high unemployment to 99 weeks.

While he works to build better relations with business, however, Obama should try to scotch a troubling trend.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is examining an insidious phenomenon: Employers are excluding the unemployed from consideration for jobs. That’s right, some bosses are figuratively hanging out “No Unemployed Need Apply” signs.

Helen Norton of the University of Colorado’s law school told a commission hearing Feb. 16 that employers and staffing agencies have advertised for workers ranging from electronic engineers to mortgage underwriters, with the proviso that only the currently employed will be considered.

Tom Toles, the Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, this week drew The Economy as a walled fortress with a group of Unemployed people huddled outside. A man in a tower of The Economy looks down at the silent Unemployed and says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but we discovered it works better without you.”

Nobody would say that in real life, of course.

“I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs,” said Boehner, but, “we’ve got to make tough decisions.”

He and Obama need to be sure their tough decisions don’t hit unemployed people the hardest.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Want a New Job? Start a Business; SCORE's Free Retiree Advice - AARP Bulletin

If you're interested in starting a business, the SCORE program can help. Here's my latest story in the AARP Bulletin. Want a New Job? Start a Business; SCORE's Free Retiree Advice - AARP Bulletin

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Haley Barbour and the burden of Southern history -- Feb. 17, 2011 column


Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi likely will run for president, so naturally everything he says can and will be held against him. That’s OK by me.

It’s a long, tough slog to the White House, and then the real work begins. The men and women who aspire to be president need to be tested, and voters need to see what candidates are made of.

Barbour, 63, is a GOP insider who as Republican National Chairman in 1994 helped his party regain control of both the U.S. House and Senate. He later became one of Washington’s top lobbyists. He expected to run for president in 2008, but Mother Nature intervened. When Hurricane Katrina devastated his state in 2005, he put his aspirations on hold.

The affable governor’s experience as a mega-lobbyist came in handy during his state’s massive rebuilding project. He steered more than $24 billion in federal aid to his state, a haul four times larger than its annual budget.

As Barbour gears up for 2012, however, strong winds of another kind are threatening.
This time, the winds of Southern history could blow him off track.

Late last year, Barbour, a son of the patrician South, made news in a published interview that suggested he was insensitive to blacks and the civil rights movement. He said growing up in the segregated South during the civil rights era wasn’t “that bad” and seemed appreciative of the pro-segregation Citizens’ Council in Yazoo City, his hometown.

He issued a statement about the Weekly Standard interview, explaining that he was answering a question about why Yazoo City didn’t have the same violence integrating the schools as other places.

“I accurately said the community leadership wouldn't tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the 'Citizens Council,' is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time,” he said.

Now, as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, another issue has arisen, involving how to commemorate that troubled era. The Mississippi division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans recently asked the state to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest with a specialty license plate.

Mississippi issues specialty plates for enthusiasms as varied as Elvis, wildlife and 25 different NASCAR drivers. The Sons’ plate this year has an outline of Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate President Jeff Davis, in Biloxi.

Forrest is a provocative choice, to say the least. A brilliant general and warfare tactician, he made a fortune before the war as a slave trader and afterward became Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

In picking Forrest, a Tennessean whose troops perpetrated the Fort Pillow massacre of African-American troops in 1864, the Sons invited controversy, and they got it. A Facebook page -- “Mississippians Against the Commemoration of Grand Wizard Nathan Forrest” – denounced the idea, and the NAACP asked the governor to do the same.

Barbour could have said that Forrest was an unnecessarily combative choice for a proud Southern heritage group. That other Confederate heroes are more appropriate for a state license plate. He could have said he wouldn’t have that plate on his car. He could have shown that he understands the conflicts that burden Southern history.

Instead, he sidestepped. “I don’t go around denouncing people,” he said the other day, the Associated Press reported. Besides, he said, the plate isn’t going to happen because the legislature would have to approve, and it won’t.

That might be a satisfactory answer for a governor without larger ambition. But if Barbour wants to be president, he needs show leadership. This is an opportunity for him to speak from the heart about race, much as Barack Obama did during the 2008 campaign, after the controversy involving his preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The downside of running for president is that everything a candidate says is closely scrutinized. That’s also the upside. People are listening.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Just say later: Teens delaying motherhood -- Feb. 10, 2011 column


First lady Michelle Obama’s campaign encouraging kids to eat healthier foods and exercise is a modest enterprise compared with the federal government’s bold attempt in 1981 to curb teen sex.

The goal was to reduce early pregnancy, but the idea that Uncle Sam would presume to know more than parents, grandparents and churches about promoting chastity struck many, including me, as preposterous. Many thought it a mission impossible that would end when President Ronald Reagan headed back to his ranch.

Thirty years later, the government is still pushing what’s now called abstinence education. Fortunately, the government’s approach to reducing teen pregnancy has matured and broadened considerably with effective sex education and information about and access to contraception.

And here’s the good news: Fewer teens are having babies.
The birth rate for teenagers declined 8 percent between 2007 and 2009 to its lowest level since the federal government began keeping track nearly 70 years ago, the National Center for Health Statistics reported.

The 2009 teen birth rate -- 39.1 births per 1,000 teens 15 to 19 -- is nearly 60 percent lower than the historic high in 1957 of 96.3 births. The number of births to teens, about 410,000 in 2009, was the fewest since 1946 and 36 percent fewer than in 1970.

Even better, the decline is across the board. Birth rates have fallen to the lowest levels ever for younger as well as older teens and for all racial and ethnic groups, according to the analysis by the health statistics center, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control.

Virginia ranked in the Top 10 states with the most-significant decreases in the birth rate for 15- to 17-year-olds. North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama had significant decreases in the birth rate for the age group.

Just as healthy behavior is a pre-emptive strike against illness, delaying motherhood is a pre-emptive strike against poverty. A baby born to a single, teen mother who lacks a high school diploma is nine times more likely to grow up in poverty than is a baby with older, married parents who have finished high school.

Teen childbearing costs American society an estimated $9.1 billion a year. The babies of teen moms are more likely to have lower birth weight and other medical problems.

The downward trend of teen childbearing began 20 years ago. Between 1991 through 2005the teen birth rate dropped by more than one-third. Various studies have reported that teen sexual activity declined during those years, and contraceptive use rose.

Progress inexplicably stalled in 2005, and the birth rate rose 5 percent over the next two years. Analysts are hopeful that the 2008 data and preliminary data for 2009 indicate a resumption of the downward trend.

To be sure, pieces of the puzzle are missing. Information on teenage pregnancy outcomes, including abortions and miscarriages, lags birth rates and was not part of the analysis. In 2005, the most recent year for which comparable data are available, 57 percent of adolescent pregnancies ended in live births, 27 percent in abortions and 16 percent in miscarriages, according to the CDC, which also says there has been a strong downward trend in teen abortions.

“Abstinence-only” education survived the Clinton era as part of welfare reform and still exists among several teen pregnancy prevention efforts launched by President Barack Obama. The new health care law extends its life with $100 million in grants divided between a new State Personal Responsibility Education Program, known as PREP, and Abstinence Education, which by law must motivate students to abstain from sexual activity outside marriage.

Pop culture traditionally has been a counter-force to efforts discouraging early premarital sex. Today it can be an ally. Bristol Palin, the nation’s most famous single mom at 18, advocates abstinence for young unmarried people. Reality TV shows that depict how hard it is to be a young parent also help open eyes.

Three decades after the government, amid much skepticism, began urging teens to say no to sex, births to young mothers have dropped to historic lows. We can hope that it won’t take 30 years for American children to become slim and fit.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Drip, baby, drip: 'ObamaCare' fight as water torture -- Feb. 3, 2011 column


“We think this is just the beginning,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday after the Senate failed, as expected, to repeal the health care law. “This issue is still ahead of us and we will be going back at it in a variety of different ways.”

The Republican approach to going back at President Obama’s landmark legislation – the Affordable Care Act -- is starting to feel like the political equivalent of water torture. Drip, baby, drip.

In the Senate, Democrats are in control, but Republicans have the numbers and the unity to run the table. All 47 Republicans and not one Democrat voted to repeal the law. The GOP attacks on “ObamaCare” aim to please voters who dislike the law on general principle.

But what if Democrats reframed the debate to vote on the law’s specific provisions that are already in place? Would we see real profiles in courage?

Which Republicans would go on the record against allowing children under 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance? Or in favor of reinstating the lifetime cap on insurance benefits? How about allowing insurers once again to discriminate against children with pre-existing medical conditions – yes or no? And who will just say no to seniors currently getting a break on their prescription drug costs?

Few elected officials of either party vote for their own political suicide. But when someone votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he or she is saying yes to eliminating every one of those popular provisions.

Proponents of health reform structured the law so that the carrots kicked in last year while the stick of the so-called “individual mandate” doesn’t appear until 2014. Democrats and Obama reasoned that Americans will like the benefits and won’t want to go back. That proposition will be tested in 2012.

For now Republican critics are getting a free ride. They can vote to repeal ObamaCare, say they’ll replace it (sometime) and imply that a future law will contain everything people like. They’re saying: Trust us.

At the same time, Democrats are in a bind. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had vowed not to allow a vote on repeal, capitulated. He didn’t want a determined minority to gridlock the Senate.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson’s sweeping opinion from Pensacola, Fla., last Monday energized Republicans. Vinson declared not only that Congress had overreached its constitutional authority in requiring most Americans buy health insurance or pay a fee but that the entire law was void.

While the case moves toward the Supreme Court, Republicans are looking for ways to gut the law or cut off money to implement it.

Senators Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, introduced a bill that would allow states to opt-out of various provisions, including the requirements that individuals buy insurance and that employers provide it. Their idea is to bleed health reform dry by a thousand cuts. Republicans also may try to use the continuing resolution that pays for government operations to slow implementation.

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate did agree to revoke one part of the law. They voted overwhelmingly to strike a requirement that businesses file a 1099 tax form when they pay a vendor more than $600 a year. Small businesses had strenuously objected to the provision, and Obama had signaled this was an area for bipartisan compromise. The measure now goes to the House.

Interestingly, the 81 to 17 Senate vote shows how easily fiscal discipline can be bent. Everybody says the federal deficit is a serious problem and hard choices must be made. In fact, one of the main Republican arguments against the health law is that it increases the deficit; Democrats, however, cite other numbers that show the law will reduce the deficit.

The 1099 requirement would have brought in an estimated $19 billion in tax revenue over 10 years to pay for the health law. In its 1099 repeal amendment, the Senate did not specify how to make up the lost revenue, just that appropriated but unspent funds will be tapped.

In this era of political water torture, it probably won’t be long before the same Republicans who voted to repeal the 1099 requirement complain about the higher cost of the health law.

Drip, baby, drip.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Health reform lives -- despite Florida ruling

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson may have invalidated the Affordable Care Act, but it isn't dead by a long shot. Read my story in the AARP Bulletin: