Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Make your voice heard -- again -- on Giving Tuesday -- Nov. 26, 2020 column


The election is over. Let’s get to work building a better world.

Americans made their voices heard in the election and can again on Giving Tuesday, Dec. 1, the annual day of global generosity after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

Giving Tuesday encourages us to take a breath after days of consuming to reflect on what’s important to us and act on our values.

Charitable giving is more important than ever during the pandemic and recession as nonprofits have suffered a decline in donations and loss of in-person fundraising opportunities.

Wildfires, hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters have wreaked havoc on our fellow citizens. Millions have lost their jobs, leading to higher levels of food insecurity. We’ve all seen the news footage of thousands of cars in line for food. 

Nearly 26 million adults – 12% of all adults in the United States – said their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey reported this month. 

Among adults with children, the situation was worse – 16% said their household didn’t have enough to eat, compared with 9% of those without children at home.

A federal moratorium currently prevents landlords nationwide from evicting renters, but the moratorium is set to expire Dec. 31. Food banks, shelters, health clinics and other social service organizations are straining to meet increased demand and would welcome your help.

You don’t have to give cash. You can contribute your time, energy or talent to a cause or a neighbor. During the pandemic, many organizations are seeking in-person or virtual volunteers. Check out volunteermatch.org to find opportunities in your ZIP code.

Giving Tuesday isn’t political; it neither accepts nor distributes contributions, and anyone can participate free. The idea is for each person to choose a charity, donate on the charity’s website and publicize the choice on social media with the hashtag #givingtuesday. Since Giving Tuesday started in 2012, it has spread to 220 countries worldwide.

Americans donated an estimated $511 million online on #GivingTuesday last year – up from $400 million in 2018.

If you have the wherewithal, there’s a new incentive to be generous. By doing good, you basically can reduce your taxable income in 2020.

In the past, only taxpayers who itemized deductions could take charitable contributions off their federal taxes. But the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security -- or CARES -- Act allows taxpayers who don’t itemize to take a charitable deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions to qualifying organizations.

Qualifying groups are those that are “religious, charitable, educational, scientific or literary in purpose,” the IRS says. More details

Last year Americans gave almost $500 billion to charities, and about 69% of the total came from individuals, according to Giving USA 2020, a report researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

A recent survey found 40% of donors plan to give more to charity this year than last. The survey by Classy, an online gift processor, found that the pandemic was a big motivator for charitable giving, followed by the political climate and racial justice issues. 

If your inbox, like mine, is overflowing with Giving Tuesday requests, deciding which nonprofit to support can be daunting.

A word of caution, though. Scammers are also after your money. Experts advise against clicking on the handy links that come in emails. Instead, research the organizations, then go directly to their websites to give.

To make sure your donation goes to a legitimate charity, consult Charity Navigator, GuideStar (now Candid), the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance or Charity Watch, which monitor charities.

One person can make a difference. Dolly Parton has received well-deserved praise for her long history of charitable giving, especially her recent $1 million donation to help develop a coronavirus vaccine. Her Imagination Library initiative has given 147 million books to children since 1995. She started it as a tribute to her father, who couldn’t read.

Few can sing or be as generous as Dolly Parton, but each of us can make our voice heard on Giving Tuesday.

© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Thursday, November 19, 2020

No thanks? Why we need this Thanksgiving -- Nov. 19, 2020 column


A few days ago, my neighbors added to their Biden-Harris and Ruth Bader Ginsburg yard art with a sign over their front door that reads simply: “Gratitude.”

Around the neighborhood, a few inflatable turkeys, pumpkins repurposed with wooden turkey heads and feathers, and cheery “Gobble Gobble” signs remind that  Thanksgiving is upon us.

But for many, Thanksgiving 2020 seems to have lost its luster. Some suggest postponing or canceling the holiday altogether. I get that in a pandemic and recession, we’re tempted to say, “No thanks,” that it’s easy to be more focused on what we are missing than what we have managed to hang onto.

No question, this has been a terrible year, a time of unbearable sadness and grief.  We have lost 250,000 Americans to COVID-19 and thousands more suffer lasting symptoms. The virus has devastated the economy, taking away jobs and the livelihood of millions of Americans.

But while this Thanksgiving must be different -- smaller and more poignant, virtual and outdoors around a fire pit or indoors with the windows open – we can still  practice gratitude.

We have rarely needed this holiday and the coming season of lights, music and cheer more than during the long, dark days of our plague year, our annus horribilis (Latin for “horrible year”), 2020.

Yet the Thanksgiving tradition in New World began in hard times. Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation claims the first official Thanksgiving in 1619, after the settlers had endured a year of unimaginable suffering and loss. English puritans traditionally gave thanks with a time of prayer and fasting, not feasting.

In 1621, pilgrims in Plymouth, Mass., shared a harvest meal with about 90 Wampanoag Indians. But calling the Plymouth meal the “first Thanksgiving”?

That was a clever marketing tool in the 18th century to boost New England tourism, says David J. Silverman, history professor at George Washington University and author of the 2019 book, “This Land is Their Land.”

President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving during the Civil War in the forlorn hope of drawing the country together after the Union victory at Gettysburg in 1863.

This year, many people seem to have skipped right over Thanksgiving and landed on Christmas. My corner drugstore in Alexandria installed Santas in its front and center windows before Halloween.

Before anyone tucked the first pumpkin pie in the oven, Christmas arrived on the plaza in front of City Hall in the form of a tall, stately white-lighted holiday tree.  A smaller tree brightens the riverfront. On King Street, white lights illuminate bare tree branches, and red bows and greenery adorn lamp posts.

Alexandria will even collect trash and recycling Thanksgiving Day, rather than take a typical “holiday slide.” That, though, was the choice of collection workers, who prefer to start their pickups at 6 a.m. Thursday so they can be home that evening and off Friday with their families, the city said in a news release.

The holidays won’t be the same this year. We will be distant, actually or socially, wear masks and wash our hands often.

But that shouldn’t stop us from remembering advice attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson to “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.”

There are real signs of hope. Promising coronavirus vaccines are in the pipeline. Moderna said its vaccine was 94.5% effective in early tests, and Pfizer announced its vaccine is 95% effective with no serious side effects.

Scientists and medical personnel are true American heroes, going to work every day to save lives. Now we need President Donald Trump, Republicans and the federal government to step up and help President-elect Joe Biden plan for the vaccines’ distribution and the transition to a new administration.

Meanwhile, we can be glad not to live in the little town of Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, Alaska, at the state’s northernmost point.

On Wednesday, the sun set there at 1:30 p.m. Alaska Standard Time -- not to rise again until Jan. 23.

That’s right – 66 days of what’s called polar night, when the sun does not rise above the horizon.

With everything else happening, we at least will have sunrises and sunsets and the hope of brighter days ahead. Find your gratitude.

© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Don't be a turkey on Thanksgiving -- Nov. 12, 2020 column


We need to talk about Thanksgiving.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting -- generations happily gathered shoulder to shoulder around the dinner table as the roast turkey makes a glorious entrance -- is many Americans’ ideal Thanksgiving.

But in 2020 that festive family dinner could be a COVID-19 super spreader event.

Friends and family members traveling from afar, hugging, helping in the kitchen, sitting together for a long meal indoors with the windows closed, passing platters family-style or helping themselves to a buffet using the same serving utensils – are a recipe for disaster.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, doesn’t care if we have pandemic fatigue. It’s not taking a holiday, and we can’t pretend everything is back to normal. We are months from having a widely available and effective vaccine to prevent and therapeutics to treat the deadly virus.

Older people and those with underlying health conditions are still more vulnerable to the disease, which is rampaging around the country.

Upwards of 100,000 new cases are being reported day after day. More than 148,000 cases were reported Wednesday alone. Cases are surging in almost every state, swamping hospitals and funeral homes.

More than 10 million Americans have been stricken, more than 242,000 of us have died, and hundreds of thousands more suffer debilitating effects that linger for months.

Several states have returned to more restrictive rules. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, limited indoor private gatherings to 10 people and closed bars and restaurants at 10 p.m. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, ordered restrictions on restaurant capacity and indoor gatherings and discouraged travel to hot spot states. 

“This virus is still alive and well and very, very contagious,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said Tuesday. COVID cases have soared in rural southwest Virginia and have risen in central Virginia. So far, Northam has left reopening rules unchanged.

It’s up to us to take personal responsibility and be disciplined and careful.

The Centers for Disease Control issued guidance Tuesday on how to make this Thanksgiving safer. 

First and foremost, wear a mask. It should have two or more layers to stop the virus spread.

The latest CDC research indicates a mask can help protect the wearer as well as those with whom they come in contact.

But no cheating: “Wear the mask over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin. Make sure the mask fits snugly against the sides of your face,” CDC says.

Many tips, like washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer when you can’t wash, are familiar.

“Stay at least 6 feet away from people who do not live with you” (italics mine) is a variation on a theme.

Hosts and hostesses need to rethink their traditional plans and stifle their inner Martha Stewart.

Limit the number of guests and talk beforehand about expectations for celebrating together. Eat outdoors, if possible; inside, open the windows. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and items between use, CDC says.

Guests: Bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils. Avoid going in and out of the kitchen. Use single-use items, like salad dressing and condiment packets, and disposable food containers, plates and utensils.

Better yet, just stay home. “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others,” CDC says.

Home is not risk-free, however. A CDC study found that people who carried the virus, most without symptoms, infected more than half the other people in their homes.  

Instead, host a virtual Thanksgiving with those who don’t live with you. Share recipes. Watch parades, sports and movies on TV or online.

 If you do need to travel, get a flu shot beforehand. This year, a flu shot is essential even if you’re not traveling. Carry disinfecting wipes and extra masks.

And don’t even think about crowding into stores for Black Friday deals.

We can get through this if we exercise caution this year. By next Thanksgiving, we should be able to resume our normal activities.

Let go of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving so we don’t unwittingly spread an unpredictable, deadly disease to friends and family. That’s something to be thankful for.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Health insurance for millions in peril -- Nov. 5, 2020 column


With the future of health care in limbo during the prolonged presidential election, the Supreme Court next week will take up a case that could yank health insurance from 23 million Americans during a pandemic.

On Tuesday, the court will hear oral arguments in California v. Texas, which questions whether the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, is constitutional. What the court ultimately decides could affect nearly every American family, not just those who buy their insurance through Obamacare.

Republicans have long argued Congress overstepped its authority when it imposed the individual mandate, requiring most Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.

In 2012, the court upheld Obamacare 5 to 4. Chief Justice John Roberts, siding with the more liberal justices, wrote that since the penalty was collected by the IRS, it could be considered a tax and Congress has the power of taxation.

In 2017, Congress zeroed out the penalty. A group of red states challenged Obamacare, arguing a zero penalty means there is no tax and the law is unconstitutional. The Trump administration backs the red states.

After rounds in federal courts, a group of blue states supporting the law asked the Supreme Court to review the issues. The House is also defending the law, which remains in effect.

This time, conservative justices hold a 6 to 3 advantage. In a sign of the significance of the case, the court has lengthened arguments from the usual 30 minutes to 40 minutes for each side side.

Tuesday’s arguments may give us a glimpse into the mind of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who said at her confirmation hearing, “I am not hostile to the ACA,” although as a law professor she wrote an article criticizing Roberts’s reasoning in the 2012 decision.

The current case raises the doctrine of severability -- whether a law can still stand if part of it is struck down. Barrett said she has not talked or written about severability.

The highest court could let Obamacare stand, abolish it entirely or do something in between. A ruling is expected by summer.

No one argues Obamacare is perfect. Many Americans bristled at being told they had to buy insurance, at paying a penalty if they failed to do so and at the cost.

But. Under Obamacare, insurance companies may no longer deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions like cancer, diabetes or sleep apnea; charge them higher premiums, subject them to long waiting periods or cap their benefits.

About 54 million Americans under 65 – or 27% -- have a preexisting condition that, before Obamacare, insurance companies could use to decline coverage on the individual market, an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found. In Virginia, about 1.3 million people under 65 – or 26% -- have such conditions, the report said.

Besides protecting those with preexisting conditions, Obamacare also prevents insurers from charging women more than men, permits children to stay on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26 and offers subsidies to some customers to help pay premiums.

Most Americans get their insurance through their employers or a government program like Medicare or Medicaid, but no one knows when a job loss, divorce or other life event may require buying insurance on the individual or non-group market.

The pandemic and economic downturn prompted an additional 3 million Americans to seek help, raising the number covered under Obamacare to 23 million, according to the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

In the absence of Obamacare, COVID-19 could be considered a preexisting condition, and survivors could be denied health insurance.

President Donald Trump has promised since 2016 to repeal and replace Obamacare with something better and cheaper but has never presented a replacement plan.

He issued an executive order on preexisting conditions in September that experts said was symbolic and had no practical effect.

Obamacare has withstood more than 70 Republican attempts at repeal in the House and many judicial challenges.

Before the election, when it appeared the Senate and White House might flip blue, both Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they would work to strengthen Obamacare.

A Republican Senate led by Mitch McConnell makes meaningful change more difficult and raises the stakes for what the court decides.

Republicans and Democrats need to work together to write a law that works and people will accept. America will be healthier for it.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.