Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Farewell Greensboro, Hello Melbourne

Well, it's done.

After eight years blessed with the opportunities to work for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, work with many students and good colleagues, and make many great friends, I've left to pursue a new opportunity in a new country at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne. My first day was Monday.

Moves involve some disruption, but this one comes at a good time. My two sons completed great educations in Greensboro's public schools. The oldest has gone on to graduate from UNC Chapel Hill, and the youngest is pursuing a joint degree that will take him to Scotland for the next two years. Neither is home, and so the disruption is mostly limited to my wife and me.

And it's for a tremendous opportunity at a top university in a fantastic city. My research (my actual job) focuses on quantitative analyses of household outcomes, and the Melbourne Institute is home to a tremendous survey that has followed each member of about 7,000 Australian families yearly since 2001 as well as a newer survey that has followed about 2,000 people who were either homeless or at high risk of homelessness semi-annually for three years. These are data resources that just can't be beat, and the chance to work with them and the 40-odd researchers who are part of Institute is exciting. Over the past few years, I've been lucky to be able to collaborate with researchers in the Institute, and now I'll be able to work with them full time.

Melbourne itself is also gorgeous, with wonderful restaurants, theaters, and museums. It's also right up against several great Australian wine regions. When I get a break from work, there is a lot to explore.

I'll miss Greensboro but hope to visit.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Licenses to kill

The gun apologists argue that lawful concealed carry gun holders pose no risk to the general public. However, 644 people (at least) would likely disagree if they were around to tell their side of the story.

The Violence Policy Center reports that since May 2007, 644 people have been killed by private citizens authorized to carry concealed handguns. These include 28 incidents of mass shootings and 14 deaths of law enforcement officers. About five out of six of the incidents were murder-suicides.

And none of the incidents involved self-defense.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

NC tax fairness RIP

Remember all those very serious explanations from Gov. Pat McCrory and the radical Raleigh Republicans regarding how their massive tax shifts and tax cuts were intended to make taxes fairer and flatter and to broaden the tax base.

Part of the deal, such as it was, was that in exchange for lower and flatten marginal personal income tax rates that would provide an enormous windfall for the wealthy, the state would also eliminate and cap a few tax loopholes.

Oh sure, those changes had the effect of erasing hundreds of millions of dollars of tax liabilities for the Governor's wealthy contributors and raising taxes on the poor and elderly, but hey, you have to break a few modest nest eggs to make a fairer, flatter, and broader tax omelet.

How long did Gov. McCrory's fidelity to fairer, flatter, and broader taxes last? Less than a year.

One of set of tax credits that was going to expire was the personal income tax credits on rehabilitating historic buildings and mills. The NC Department of Revenue estimates that the credits, which largely go to the wealthiest tax filers, depleted state coffers to the tune of $34 million in FY 2012 and will cost about $25 million per year in the next two years before their scheduled expiration.

Gov. McCrory announced yesterday that he wants to replace those expiring tax breaks with new ones.

Besides being a give-away to the rich (currently you need to pony up at least $3 million in repairs to claim the mill rehabilitation credit), the breaks re-introduce complications into the tax code and reduce state revenues.

To be fair, the credits have some worthwhile features. However, the Governor's rote response when asked about other worthy expenditures, like the Earned Income Tax Credit for the poor or raises for teachers and state employees, is that the state can't afford them.

Similarly, there don't appear to be any plans to repeal the new tax hikes the Governor and Republicans imposed on trailer homes and modular homes. Historic homes owned by the rich get some nice tax candy; modest shelters for struggling, working families, not so much.

As this latest episode shows, fairness was never really part of the Governor's tax plans. However, his fidelity to tax cuts for the rich at the explicit expense of the poor remains intact.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ACA succeeding despite Republicans' scorched-earth tactics

A number of reports this week document notable successes of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) despite Republicans' scorched-earth attempts at nullification.

On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecast that government expenditures for the ACA would be $5 billion lower than anticipated this year and $109 billion lower than anticipated for the next decade.

The budgetary news is good in and of itself, but the principal reason behind it--that private health insurance premiums would be much lower than expected (thus requiring fewer subsidies)--was even better. The lower expenditures also come despite other good but potentially costly news--higher than expected enrollments in the health insurance exchanges.

The CBO now forecasts that 12 million more Americans will have health insurance coverage in 2014 (and 19 million more in 2015) than they would have in the absence of the ACA.

Health insurance coverage would be higher still were it not for Republicans' cynical strategy to undermine the ACA for purely partisan purposes. Indeed, Gallup estimates that between 2013 and the first quarter of 2014 the proportion of uninsured non-elderly adults dropped three times faster in states that set up their own health insurance exchanges and accepted the federal government's fully-paid offer to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income working families than in states that rejected these policies.

The truly despicable aspect of Republicans' nullification strategy is its cynical use of low- and moderate-income workers. These are Americans who "play by the rules" by working, even though their wages are incredibly low. They are also the Americans that Republicans say that the non-working poor should emulate.

Unfortunately, they are also the Americans that Republicans have thrown under the bus, by denying many access to Medicaid.

How perverse are these policies? Consider North Carolina, where a working single mother with one child loses eligibility for Medicaid once her countable income reaches $434 per month. A single mother in a minimum-wage ($7.25/hour) job would lose her eligibility after working 83 hours per month (20 hours per week). Talk about cruel incentives and a horrible choice--work more than part-time or have health insurance!

In other Republican-led states, governors and legislators have undermined the ACA (and their own constituents) by going after organizations that helped to sign low- and moderate-income families up for federally-subsidized insurance.

And these actions have been compounded by Republican actions to underfund the ACA's implementation and to sow as much uncertainty and confusion as possible.

In all of this, who gets hurt? Low- and moderate-income working families without insurance.

And despite this, the law is working.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Aussies laughing all the way to the Ex-Im Bank

U.S. taxpayers just turned over a whole bunch of loot to Australia's richest person.

The Age reports
How Australia's richest person, mining heiress Gina Rinehart, secured a $US694 million ($764 million) loan from American taxpayers is surely one of the great ironies of the capitalist system, reports The Australian Financial Review.

The case is the latest example of a flaw in the United States political economy: what some see as crony capitalism.

...The Ex-Im Bank's loan to an Australian billionaire, who is worth $22 billion according to the 2013 BRW Rich 200 list, is symptomatic of a broader malaise in the US system. American policymakers and lawmakers appear captured by big business rent seekers, lobbyists and political donations.

Hancock Prospecting is not the only Australian company to benefit from America's, at times, peculiar capitalism.

QBE Insurance, the second-largest crop insurer in the US, has been a big recipient of federal crop insurance subsidies, which have tripled to about $US9 billion a year for the industry over the past decade.
The rich, as they say, get richer.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Disarming logic

A biology professor at Boise State University asks for some practical advice and pens one of the best op-ed columns of the year.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to make the health system worse

Republicans' crocodile tears over people losing their health insurance coverage appear to have dried.

The House is preparing to take up H.R. 2575, which would alter portions of the Affordable Care Act to allow more businesses to avoid providing providing health insurance to their employees.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Rep. Howard Coble and other members of the Republican NC delegation.

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office gives the easily predictable result--lots of people (about 1 million by the CBO's estimate) will lose their employer-based insurance each year.

On top of that, the CBO estimates that the legislation would
  • swell Medicaid and State Children's Health Insurance Program rolls by 500,000 to 1,000,000 people,
  • increase the number of uninsured people by up to 500,000, and
  • add to the federal debt by $73.7 billion over the next ten years.
Because costs of Medicaid and SCHIP are shared by the federal and state governments, the changes would add to state government costs as well.

Less private insurance, more public insurance, bigger deficits, and more costs for states--that's the Republican recipe for "reform."

Monday, February 24, 2014

Casting blame far and wide

When something goes wrong, do we need to blame someone?

Yes, according to an article in the Journal of Political Economy by researchers from Boğaziçi University, Bocconi University, and the University.

The researchers ran experiments that paired subjects. One subject had to make decisions about how money would be split between a risky and safe investment in an uncertain environment. After the uncertainty was resolved and the payout was determined, the second subject decided how much to reward (or punish) the first.

There were four possible outcomes from the first subject's decision:
  1. The person chose the risky outcome and the risky outcome made money (also more than the safe outcome),
  2. The person chose the risky outcome and the risky outcome lost money,
  3. The person chose the safe outcome and the risky outcome made money (and would have paid more than the safe outcome), and
  4. The person chose the safe outcome and the risky outcome lost money.
Although the first subject chose the investment, s/he did not have any influence over how the uncertainty would be resolved.

The researchers set things up so that under some circumstances
  1. the risky investment was the better bet (even though there was still a small possibility of a loss),
  2. neither the risky investment nor the safe investment was a better bet, and
  3. the safe investment was the better bet (even though there was still a small possibility that the risky investment would pay more).
In this set up, there was some scope for blame-worthy decisions. For example, choosing the safe investment when the risky investment had a higher expected pay-off or choosing the risky investment when the safe investment had a higher expected pay-off would each be "bad" decisions a priori.

What was interesting, however, was that the second subjects paid the first subjects less (punished the first subjects) even when they made the appropriate decisions a priori but the luck of the draw led to bad outcomes. For instance, subjects were often punished when they chose the risky investment, even though it had a higher expected pay-off, but the realized pay-off was a loss. That is, the second subjects appeared to shift blame for bad outcomes that were beyond anyone's control onto the first subjects.

Need someone to blame? Chances are you'll find someone.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What Sheila Salter isn't telling you

Today's News & Record includes an op-ed by Sheila Salter, a 61-year-old self-employed marketing consultant from Chapel Hill, describing the cancellation (later rescinded) of her NC Blue Cross Blue Shield policy. provider (Blue Cross Blue Shield) suggested a new policy that would roughly replace my canceled one. They recommended a "bronze" plan--the cheapest plan I could buy. It cost a whopping $584 per month. My current plan, by comparison, cost me only $202 per month.

I could hardly contain my shock. My new Obamacare-compliant plan would cost me 189 percent more. It also increased my deductible from $3,500 to $5,000 and increased my co-pays from $25 to $45.
Ms. Salter made similar claims in testimony to the House of Representatives in November and in ads produced by the Koch-funded American's for Prosperity.

The (eventual) cancellation of Ms. Salter's insurance may be costly. However, Ms. Salter misrepresents some parts of her story and omits some others. The cancellation, regrettable as it is, is not nearly as costly as she makes it out to be.

The most important misrepresentation is that a $584 per month "bronze" plan is the cheapest she could buy. In fact, the $584 plan is the most expensive "bronze" plan she could buy. There are seven other "bronze" plans in Chapel Hill; the least expensive costs $150 less per month.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Good for thee but not for me

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson's affection for fracking is a sometimes thing.

ThinkProgress explains.
As ExxonMobil’s CEO, it’s Rex Tillerson’s job to promote the hydraulic fracturing enabling the recent oil and gas boom, and fight regulatory oversight. The oil company is the biggest natural gas producer in the U.S., relying on the controversial drilling technology to extract it.

The exception is when Tillerson’s $5 million property value might be harmed. Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that cites fracking’s consequences in order to block the construction of a 160-foot water tower next to his and his wife’s Texas home.
Maybe this experience will give Mr. Tillerson some appreciation of how fracking and its infrastructure affect surrounding properties.

But probably not.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

160,000 NC residents enrolled thru health exchange--so far

There's good news to report about the new individual health insurance exchanges that are now operating under the Affordable Care Act.

Nationally, just under 3.3 million people enrolled in individual insurance plans through the state- and federally-run exchanges during their first four months of operation, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In North Carolina, just over 160,000 people had selected an individual plan.

Although NC is 10th among states in population, it was 5th among states in private, individual health insurance enrollments during the first four months of the insurance exchanges. An additional 48,000 people were assessed as being eligible public insurance for Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

To put the figures in context, approximately 1.7 million North Carolinians lacked health insurance prior to the exchanges opening.

The high levels of enrollments aren't the only good news.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Gov. McCrory--job destroyer

"Petty" and "thin-skinned" already appeared prominently on Gov. Pat McCrory's resume.

To those, you can now add "job-destroyer."

The Charlotte Observer explains
An employee at a Myers Park gourmet food store was fired after Gov. Pat McCrory’s security detail complained Sunday about a comment the worker made to the governor.

On Sunday afternoon, McCrory was shopping at Reid’s Fine Foods when Drew Swope, a 45-year-old cook, said he asked if he could help McCrory.

After realizing he was speaking with the governor, whom he disagrees with politically, Swope said he told McCrory, “Thanks for nothing,” and walked away.

Swope said the governor was upset at his comment and began “yelling” at him. He said McCrory said he was a customer and shouldn’t be treated that way.

He said the governor and his security team complained to the food store owner, who then fired him.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Locke Foundation's "Massachusetts Miracle"

Last month, the John Locke Foundation released a report, "Tax Cuts for All," that purported that the tax reform that North Carolina enacted in 2013 would result in lower average net taxes for every income group in the state by 2015. For the report, the JLF relied on numbers computed by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University in Massachusetts.

The numbers look miraculous.

Contrary to some other analyses, the JLF and its Massachusetts partner find that total taxes paid by every income group will be lower in 2015 than they would have without the reform. Specifically, they estimate that 
  • households with incomes below $25,000 will save a total of $79 million,
  • households with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 will save $68 million,
  • households with incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 will save $58 million,
  • households with incomes of $75,000 to $100,000 will save $78 million,
  • households with incomes of $100,000 to $200,000 will save $201 million, and
  • households with incomes above $200,000 will save $369 million.
The enormous tax savings for the small number of households in the top income category would be great news for them, but the more modest projected savings for other households would also be good news (just not as much good news as the very, very rich).

The miraculous part is that numbers suggest that the NC tax changes provide average tax savings across the income distribution.

However, there's just a teensy, weensy problem with the analysis--the numbers don't add up. Or rather, the estimated $853 million in total JLF savings across income groups in 2015 adds to far more than the anticipated savings from NC's official budget analysis.

The report claims to rely on many figures and estimates provided by the Fiscal Research Division of the NC General Assembly. But the FRD calculated that the tax package would only reduce revenues by $501 million in fiscal year that runs July 2014-June 2015 and $760 million in the fiscal year that runs from July 2015-June 2016. Thus, the 2015 calendar year savings would be somewhere between $501 and $760 million.

Yet the JLF and its Massachusetts partner find $853 million in savings.

Talk about your Massachusetts miracles!

Update (2/12/14, 2:15 p.m.): The JLF/Beacon Hill numbers have become more miraculous.

The FRD estimates that state revenues will drop $501-$760 million in 2015. However, the funds coming from taxpayers' pockets will only fall $434 to $706 million because the expansion of the sales tax also increases local government tax receipts.

Also, the JLF/Beacon Hill estimates don't treat the elimination of the state Earned Income Tax Credit as tax reform (low-income families are likely to see things differently). The elimination of the state EITC will cost low-income households at least $100 million per year.

These changes add more than $150 million to the discrepancy between the JLF/Beacon Hill numbers and the official state projections.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

McCrory administration and NC General Assembly team up to punch $10-$40 million hole in Medicaid budget

They all can't be this incompetent. Can they?

What do you get when you combine the incompetent micro-managers in the North Carolina General Assembly with the incompetent bumblers in the NC Department of Health and Human Services?

A new $10 million to $40 million hole in the state's Medicaid budget.

The News & Observer picks up the story.
In August, the state’s Medicaid director asked the federal government for permission to postpone for three months the process for renewing Medicaid recipients’ coverage.

The federal government gave its approval, but the N.C. General Assembly didn’t. When lawmakers passed the state budget in July, they required the Department of Health and Human Services to get legislative approval for federal waivers.
The story indicates that the cost addressing the waiver that really isn't a waiver is somewhere between $10 million and $40 million.

Expect Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos to be along shortly with some explanation of how this is either President Obama's or former Gov. Bev Perdue's fault.

In the meantime, beginning teachers might not want to spend those promised raises.

Stop playing with other people's money

As the three regular readers of this blog will recognize, I'm rarely in league with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) or Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), but I'm completely on board with their proposals to revoke the tax-exempt status of the NFL and NHL.

Through a special-interest provision inserted in legislation nearly 50 years ago, both leagues are treated as 501(c)(6) non-profit, commercial organizations--organizations like Chambers of Commerce, local boards of trade, and local real estate boards. Other 501(c)(6) organizations are supposed to promote general business or commercial interests, improve general business conditions, but not engage in business activities themselves.

Unlike other 501(c)(6) organizations, the NFL and NHL directly engage in business activities, such as merchandizing and negotiating broadcasting deals, that benefit their members. Absent the special provision, they would not qualify as tax-exempt. Indeed, other organizations that have specifically promoted their members' business interests rather than general business interests have had to forfeit their tax-exempt status.
Although the individual teams within the leagues are subject to taxation, the revenue that the league offices receive is not. Last year, the NFL--as an organization--received a more than a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue from its member teams. About a tenth of that revenue went directly into the pocket of league commissioner Roger Goodell.

The tax-exempt status amounts to a multi-million dollar annual subsidy to some of the wealthiest people and organizations in the country. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that ending the subsidy would return $109 million to the Treasury over the next ten years.

Struggling taxpayers simply can't afford multi-million dollar subsidies to billionaires. Stop the charity to the NFL and NHL.

Monday, February 10, 2014


Yet again, Gov. McCrory's state government fails to reassure.
N.C. environmental officials now confirm arsenic levels in the Dan River exceeded state standards for at least two days following the coal ash spill a week ago from a shuttered Duke Energy plant.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources says it made an error when it indicated Thursday that the arsenic levels in the Dan River downstream from the spill were within state standards on Monday and Tuesday.
Was the NC DENR trying to bury the news? Consider the lead sentence from its Friday press release, announcing the failed tests.
All but four of the 34 water quality parameters analyzed as part of water testing near this week’s coal ash spill in the Dan River meet regulated levels for protection of human health and aquatic life, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported Friday evening. 
 And, as they say, four out of 34 ain't so bad.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hey UNCG sports fans

North Carolina offers its residents some great sports bargains. This year NC fans could buy Carolina Panthers football season tickets for as little as $390, Charlotte Bobcats basketball season tickets for as little as $344, or Carolina Hurricanes hockey season tickets for as little as $516. Granted, these bargain prices only cover the teams' nose-bleed seats, but a bargain is a bargain--and nobody is forced to buy a pro sports ticket.

The same can't be said of NC's collegiate sports, including at my own institution, where students are offered quite a different bargain.

As part of the cost of attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, each full-time undergraduate and graduate student is compelled to pay an annual athletic fee of $622. For in-state undergrads, the mandatory athletic fee accounts for 10 percent of the total tuition and fees charged by UNCG. Students have no choice in the matter--if they want to pursue an education at UNCG, the $622 annual athletics charge is added to the price of admission.

UNCG's mandatory athletic fee has grown at a brisk clip of 7.1% per year over the last six years--a rate that's nearly four times the growth of inflation. The University has jacked up the fee despite a recession that has hurt students' ability to pay for college, even faster growth in tuition and other fees that have raised the cost of schooling, and crushing loads of student debt that leave graduates struggling to make ends meet long after they've left the campus.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Statistical error in your favor: collect 600,000 jobs

A remarkable increase in U.S. jobs is buried in an otherwise unremarkable monthly jobs report.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the country added a seasonally-adjusted 113,000 non-farm payroll jobs in January, a solid but by no means brisk growth figure.

However, the estimated number of jobs in January of 137.5 million was 600,000 higher that last month's estimate of 136.9 million in December.

The additional 500,000 jobs come from revisions that the government makes annually to its jobs figures.

The payroll employment figures are based on surveys of firms. The rosters for those surveys are drawn from records of existing firms and have trouble accounting for new firms that are created after the roster is drawn as well as existing firms that close. The government makes adjustments for these changes, but these adjustments tend to lag the actual changes, understating job growth in good years and job declines in bad years.

Each February the government compares previous years' survey numbers to other administrative records and readjusts the survey numbers. These adjustments added about 400,000 jobs to its estimates early in 2013 and about 500,000 to its estimates near the end of 2013.

On a percentage basis, the estimates don't change much--the revised December figure is only 0.37% higher than the original estimate. But even small percentages work out to big numbers when they are applied to large populations.

Overall, the Department of Labor estimates that annual job growth was 2.3 million last year instead of 2.2 million--about 10,000 extra jobs per month.

Sometimes mistakes can be good news.

Imagine what today's headline could have been

Two immediately pressing pieces of legislation are currently in front of the Congress: extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and extension of the country's borrowing authority.

Both pieces of legislation are worthy. One of the pieces of legislation--expanding the debt ceiling--is absolutely necessary. Both have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past (Republicans were happy to provide more jobless benefits and to raise the debt ceiling when their guy occupied the White House; in fairness, both were also happy to demagog these issues when the other guy occupied the White House). Both would almost surely pass if given up or down votes.

Imagine the headlines--and the increased respect for Congress--if both had received those votes yesterday.

Instead, a minority of Republican senators, including North Carolina's Richard Burr, blocked consideration of jobless benefits--even though a key Republican demand, that the cost of the benefits be offset, had been met.

And, the Republican House, which can't decide exactly which hostage to take (and eventually release), left town without a debt ceiling vote.

In the meantime, the rest of us are left to shake our heads and just imagine positive headlines.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Replacing Dave

The Triad Business Journal offers great advice to any organization looking to replace a departing Dave.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and Dave ... walks into your office with an envelope in his hand. You think, “Uh oh, he’s resigning.”

He indeed resigns, and the moment he leaves you grab the phone to call HR.

...if you want to find the best possible person for your open job, stop thinking about what you want, and start thinking about what that ideal candidate wants.

When top performers change jobs, they want a position that offers something they don’t already have on their resume – something that takes their career into a new, unfamiliar realm. Maybe your ideal candidate wants to work on a larger scale, supervise a larger team, or master a new skill. Maybe she wants the prestige of working for your organization, or the pleasure of being a bigger fish in your smaller pond.
It's also great advice for any organization looking to replace a departing Pete, departing Joe, departing Chris, departing Chuck, or departing Geetha.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

NC also dragging its feet on Unemployment Insurance

For seven months, North Carolina has delayed the processing of food assistance cases.

WRAL reports that over the same period the state has also dragged its feet on Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims.
The number of unemployed North Carolina workers who waited longer than three weeks for their initial benefit check increased after a new unemployment insurance law took effect last summer.
The delays in caseload processing are due largely to Republican-enacted changes in the state's UI system.

Besides reducing the amount of benefits, reducing the length of benefits, and imposing an extra week's delay in receiving benefits, Republicans put workers on the hook for any overage mistakes that the state made.

Closer scrutiny of new applications has led to delays in awarding benefits.

As with its problems with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program processing, the state is violating federal law. For UI, federal law requires that 87 percent of initial claims be paid within three weeks; however, NC has only been averaging 70 to 80 percent.

It doesn't seem that there is much that NC can do right--at least when it comes to its disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens.

NC FAST subsiding

Seven months in, the enormous, unconscionable backlog in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications and recertifications finally appears to be subsiding.

WRAL reports the good news.
Under the gun of a federal ultimatum, state and county health officials cut a longstanding backlog of food stamp cases nearly in half over the weekend.

Data released by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Monday show about 3,600 cases remain for workers to process before a Feb. 10 deadline, down from about 7,700 on Jan. 30. Case managers must complete these applications before next week or risk losing about $88 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
An "all-hands-on-deck" approach by North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos deserves credit for cutting the backlog.

The backlog has not been eliminated. The NC DHHS has prioritized the food assistance cases that would trigger a suspension of federal SNAP administrative funds--emergency cases that should have originally received expedited 7-day processing and cases that were delayed by three months or more. Thousands of other cases with one- and two-month delays remain and will remain--that's still thousands too many, especially considering that the new computer system that triggered this has been operating for seven months.

The good news itself also has an infuriating element: the NC DHHS was able to cut almost half of the backlog in a single weekend.

For months, Sec. Wos and the NC DHHS have engaged in a public-relations campaign in which they repeatedly downplayed the calamity and then turned to denigrating county case workers, previous administrations, health care reform, the media, and others when much of the problem--and the substantial hardship it was inflicting--could be solved with a few-day surge in workers.

Not only did it take a federal ultimatum to get Sec. Wos to feel any special urgency about actually dealing with a backlog that was keeping food from desperate families, but a reasonable-cost solution to that suffering appears to have been in-hand all along.

That's callousness of the first order.

Monday, February 3, 2014

"DIscredit Hayes"

The New Yorker details how Syngenta, a multi-national company with a large Greensboro presence, led an all-out charge to take down a critical biologist, Tyrone Hayes.
Hayes has devoted the past fifteen years to studying atrazine, and during that time scientists around the world have expanded on his findings, suggesting that the herbicide is associated with birth defects in humans as well as in animals. The company documents show that, while Hayes was studying atrazine, Syngenta was studying him, as he had long suspected. Syngenta’s public-relations team had drafted a list of four goals. The first was “discredit Hayes.” In a spiral-bound notebook, Syngenta’s communications manager, Sherry Ford, who referred to Hayes by his initials, wrote that the company could “prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as noncredible.” He was a frequent topic of conversation at company meetings. Syngenta looked for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.” “If TH involved in scandal, enviros will drop him,” Ford wrote. She observed that Hayes “grew up in world (S.C.) that wouldn’t accept him,” “needs adulation,” “doesn’t sleep,” was “scarred for life.” She wrote, “What’s motivating Hayes?—basic question.”
Syngenta's campaign continued
According to company e-mails, Syngenta was distressed by Hayes’s work. Its public-relations team compiled a database of more than a hundred “supportive third party stakeholders,” including twenty-five professors, who could defend atrazine or act as “spokespeople on Hayes.” The P.R. team suggested that the company “purchase ‘Tyrone Hayes’ as a search word on the internet, so that any time someone searches for Tyrone’s material, the first thing they see is our material.” The proposal was later expanded to include the phrases “amphibian hayes,” “atrazine frogs,” and “frog feminization.”
Imagine how much good Syngenta could do if it devoted these resources to researching it products instead of researching how to undermine its critics.

Groundhog grade

Not-to-far-fetched news item: Emerging from his burrow on Sunday, Sen. Phil Berger saw his shadow, predicted that there would be six more weeks of third-grade for tens of thousands of North Carolina school children, and immediately crawled back into his burrow.

While above "news item" is fake, the prospect of a "Groundhog Grade" for NC third-graders and their families is all too real--and very much due to the ill-conceived meddling of Sen. Phil ("Punxsutawney Phil") Berger.

A while back, Punxsutawney Phil and his tea-party colleagues muscled through an education "reform" plan that requires third-graders to pass new reading proficiency tests. To give students the best chance of passing, most school districts are adopting a "portfolio" approach that subjects the students to 36 assessments.

Students who don't pass will be required to attend reading "camps" over the summer.

Those who don't attend the camps or fail the tests after the camps will get to do third grade over--and possibly over again.

Testing for the students is beginning and will continue for 12 weeks. It's hard to imagine much learning going on in the classrooms with students having to sit for the assessments and teachers having to conduct them.

It is estimated that somewhere between 37,000 and 75,000 students will fall short of the mark and be sent to the camps.

An analysis by the NC Department of Public Instruction  estimated that at least $18.3 million would be needed to fund the camps if 37,000 students failed the tests. However, in their wisdom, Punxsutawney Phil and his colleagues (who appear to have failed third-grade math) only allocated $15.5 million, leaving local school districts to pick up the rest of their tab.

It also looks like 37,000 is an optimistic figure--last year, more than 50,000 students (about half of all third graders) were short of proficiency.

Under-funded schools during the regular year; a long, drawn-out testing regime that interferes with learning; and woefully under-funded remedial programs are all a recipe for disaster.

If you inflicted this on NC families, you'd be crawling back into your burrow too.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Somewhere Pavlov is smiling"

A beloved teacher frequently admonished our class when we would reflexively start to pack up our things at the sound of the dismissal warning bell, "somewhere Pavlov is smiling."

She was referring, of course, to Ivan Pavlov, who conditioned dogs to reflexively salivate at the sound of a buzzer.

Somewhere Pavlov is smiling about Republicans' reflexive rejection of President Obama's announcement that he is creating a myRA program to help people begin saving.

The program allows for voluntary, after-tax payroll deductions--as little as $5 per week--that can be used to purchase risk-free Treasury securities with no fees charged to either the worker or his/her employer. Funds in accounts would accumulate tax free. The program mimics, on a small scale, a risk-free retirement savings option that is available to federal civil servants.

Republicans' reactions to this and nearly every other Obama initiative have followed a drearily predictable path--if the President is for it, they're against it.

This latest rejection may be one of the oddest yet, because the President's program, modest though it is, actually advances conservative principles.

Consider that by making saving easier, the program promotes self-sufficiency and ownership.

Also, the savings would be entirely privately-funded--indeed, funded by workers themselves.

In addition, every aspect of the program is voluntary. Employers are free to offer this or not as they wish; eligible employees are free to contribute or not as they wish. The only mandatory component is that employees must move their funds to a regular retirement account once their myRA savings reach $15,000.

And the returns on the savings escape taxation.

Effectively, the only thing that this program does is to eliminate the transactions costs associated with setting up or contributing to retirement accounts. As transaction costs interfere with the beneficial outcomes with free-markets (especially the amounts traded are small), the program facilitates a free-market outcome.

This may be why the Heritage Foundation and other conservative organizations have advocated for exactly these types of savings vehicles.

Right up to the point where the President agreed with them.

Come to think of it, Bugs Bunny might be smiling too.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"I'll break you in half, like a boy"

Stay classy, Republicans.

Republicans near, far (and increasingly far-out) seem to be losing it.

Locally, state Sen. Bill Rabon's delivered a profane, arrogant, and condescending tirade against his constituents, General Assembly "colleagues," the Governor, and the state's first lady--basically everyone except state Sen. Bill Rabon.

In Washington (we think), Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) re-appeared on Monday after a mysterious and unexplained absence, claiming that part of it was a game of hide-and-seek with the media.

Last night, just prior to the President's state of the union speech, Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) tweeted,
On floor of house waitin on "Kommandant-In-Chef"...the Socialistic dictator who's been feeding US a line or is it "A-Lying?"
And following the speech, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) menaced a reporter, yelling
Let me be clear to you: If you ever do that to me again, I'll throw you off this f***ing balcony.
After the reporter attempted to reply, the aptly-named Rep. Grimm continued
No, no. You're not man enough, you're not man enough. I'll break you in half, like a boy.

At least they're not threatening to blow up the economy...this week.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"He’s a little nothing of a man”

So says, Janie Withers, the president of Paws-Ability after her meeting with NC state Sen. Bill Rabon.

Sen. Rabon begs to differ
I’m going to tell you one more time. Let me back up. Let me blow my own horn. I have been there for three years. I’m in the top five . . . The best shot you folks ever have you are talking to!
Did he mention that he was Chairman of the Finance Committee?
I am chairman of finance. Do you know what the Senate is going to say? You better vote for it because you won't get a bill out of short session. None of my bills will pass. If I am supporting it, so we pass it.
Arrogant? To borrow from another well-known Republican, "you betcha." But arrogance is to be expected from a man who begins a meeting with constituents explaining
I have legislative immunity. Means if I hear it or see it, it's a lie. I don't have to admit it.
To arrogant, you can also add condescending, antagonistic, and profane--or as Ms. Withers has more succinctly put it, "a little nothing."

Sen. Burr's very, harrumph, serious proposal

We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen! We must do something about this immediately! Immediately! Immediately! Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!
Gov. W. J. Le Petomane
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) along with Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Coburn want you to know that they've released a very serious proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The proposal isn't an actual bill--you know, the kind of document that could face actual scrutiny or be scored by the Congressional Budget Office. It's more of a proposal to develop a plan to develop a bill.

And the first section, which calls for the repeal of the ACA, harrumph, has a teensy weensy footnote that says that everything will be repealed "except the changes to Medicare." No sense getting that serious.

They also propose a "truly compassionate approach to Medicaid" that would eliminate the ACA's federal funding for many poor and near-poor working adults, cap federal funding at that reduced level (eliminating the matching of state expenditures that currently occurs), and restrict further increases to population growth, inflation, and an extra one percent.

Can I get another harrumph for the one percent growth?

The senators have also undertaken some very serious outreach to the rest of their extremist party by signing up ZERO House or Tea-party members.

So, let me offer a modest suggestion for Sen. Burr and his colleagues. Write an actual bill; pass it in the House; and bring that to the President and Senate Democrats to discuss.

Seriously. Harrumph!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Time running out to fix NC's food stamp problems

The first paragraph of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's regional administrator's letter to North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos about the continuing, unresolved problems with the state's backlog of food assistance cases says it all:
Citizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level of responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve from their government.
As WRAL reports, the DHHS now has only a month to get its house in order before the USDA begins the process of withdrawing federal administrative support for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The letter from USDA describes numerous on-going failures by the DHHS.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Health exchange enrollments reach 3 million

The Hill reports that enrollments in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance exchanges have reached 3 million part way through January.
About 3 million people have selected a healthcare plan under ObamaCare, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced at an event in Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday.

HHS confirmed to The Hill that about 800,000 people have enrolled so far in January, on top of the 2.2 million who selected plans from October through December.
The news was a surprise because January and February were expected to be slow enrollment months.

The news follows yesterday's findings by Gallup that health insurance rates among adults had jumped in January.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Insurance coverage among adults increases

Gallup has released a new poll reporting that health insurance coverage among American adults increased modestly in January 2014, the first month that the Affordable Care Act health insurance exchange and expanded Medicaid policies were operating.

The graph below shows the estimates over time of the percentage of Americans who were uninsured--the insurance rate is 100 minus these figures and trends in the opposite direction.*

The poll, which interviewed 9,000 U.S. adults, has a sampling error, so the actual January figure is likely somewhere within 1 percent up or down of the reported figure.

Demographic breakdowns in the poll indicate that insurance coverage increased among all groups, with women, non-whites, people aged 35-64, middle-income families, and the unemployed experiencing the greatest gains in coverage.

Although the figures are consistent with the ACA improving health care coverage (that is, with increases in health exchange and Medicaid coverage outweighing the cancellation of some private plans and long-standing trends that had reduced private coverage), it's still too early to tell from poll results. As the chart above shows, sampling error causes the estimates to bounce around from month to month.

*Update 1/23/14 9:56 a.m.: Following up on a suggestion by Andy Brod, the post has been updated to clarify that the graph shows the uninsurance rate.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Benefits from NC pre-school programs

A new peer-reviewed study by Duke researchers in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management shows that North Carolina's Smart Start and More at Four (now the NC Pre-Kindergarten) pre-school programs substantially improve third-graders' reading and math test scores.

The researchers linked third-graders' scores on standardized Spring reading and math tests to the counties where those third-graders were pre-schoolers. They then calculated county averages of the per-child spending on the Smart Start and More at Four programs for the years that each child was growing up.

The researchers focused on the years when both programs were being ramped up and found that spending on both programs was significantly and substantially positively associated with math and reading scores. The results held even in complex multivariate models that also accounted for the children's personal and family characteristics, county-specific effects, and time-effects.

The research is important in establishing the effectiveness of both programs. In particular, it shows that both programs have impacts that reach several years into elementary school.

However, it also shows the consequences of recent actions by Republican General Assemblies to slash these programs. In 2011, permanent state funding for Smart Start was cut by one-fifth, and one-time budget cuts along with state cuts to local governments reduced spending further. That same 2011 budget also sharply cut the NCPK program. Although Gov. Perdue replaced some of those funds through temporary allocations, that relief was not maintained in the 2013-5 budget.

The consequences will appear later this decade when the current cohort of pre-schoolers reach third grade with weaker reading and math skills.

And as that noted educational authority, Speaker Thom Tillis, has pointed out, "Students who can read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to graduate than those who cannot." 

So the decade that follows isn't looking so good either.

Monday, January 20, 2014

NC grading charter school applications on a curve

Basic grammar and punctuation skills might be requirements for students in North Carolina schools, but they aren't requirements for opening a charter school in the state--especially if you're the son of the NC Senate Majority Leader.

In nearby Rockingham County, Philip Berger Jr.'s Providence Charter School was just granted approval to begin taking public funds, despite an application that is riddled with errors.

The errors start on the second page, where the wrong date is used, but they continue.

For example, the application explains on page 9 that
...students who aspire to earn a college not receive adequate attention or a challenging and demanding curriculum because of mindset that they are performing 'adequately'...because these students are viewed self-sufficient, little is demanded of them. We strive for excellence." 
Well, selective excellence that doesn't rely on attention to detail.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Busy first year for Gov. McCrory's DHHS

It's easy to lose track of all the skeevy, incompetent, and harmful things that Gov. McCrory's Department of Health and Human Services has done over the last year.

Don't worry though, WRAL has compiled a handy summary.

As you slowly shake your head at this sorry record, remember that the problems are all the fault of [insert as needed: former Gov. Perdue, current President Obama, naysayers, liberal naysayers, the liberal media, liberals generally, damnable computers, even more damnable statistics, county agencies, federal agencies].

Friday, January 17, 2014

Business writers fooled by randomness

Earlier this week, the News-Record, Triad Business Journal, and Ed Cone reported on the "good news" of Winston-Salem moving up 38 places in the Milken Institute's 2013 ranking of "best performing large cities." In particular, Winston-Salem's ranking improved from from 174th out of 200 in 2012 to 136th in 2013.

These types of rankings warrant much more skepticism than the business press gives them. This is especially true of the Milken report, which bases its rankings on an index compiled primarily from estimated numbers on job growth, wage and salary growth, and "high-tech GDP" growth for metropolitan statistical areas.
Consider the estimates of job growth. These are constructed by taking the difference of estimates of the number of jobs in an end period and a base period. Because each of the estimates is based on a sample of employers and not all employers, they are subject to sampling variability (much  the same way that public opinion results are being correct within a few percentage points). Sometimes the estimates are a little higher than the true value; sometimes they are a little lower. If the estimates are unbiased and the errors are uncorrelated over time, very high errors on the positive side tend to be followed by lower errors or errors on the negative side, and very low errors on the negative side tend to be followed by higher errors. This causes a phenomenon known as "regression to the mean" in which big positive or negative growth rates in one period tend to be followed by smaller growth rates in the next period.

Regression to the mean issues become even more pronounced when the underlying statistics are rankings and have upper and lower boundaries. For cities at the bottom of the rankings, there's no place to go but up (logically, Winston-Salem couldn't have moved down 38 places). Similarly, for cities at the top, there's no place to go but down.

The Milken Institute lists the 20 cities than gained the most positions from 2012 to 2013; of these, 19 came from the bottom half of the distribution. Of the 20 biggest losers, 14 came from the top half of the distribution.

These problems are magnified with there is more variability in the estimates. Measured variability decreases with sample size. Unless special provisions are taken to over-sample people and businesses in small cities, the estimates for cities like Winston-Salem will jump around more than their larger cousins. Indeed, Winston-Salem's has jumped all over the place across the years--136 in 2013, 174 in 2012, 164 in 2011, 119 in 2010, and 92 in 2009.

Not only are the data that form the Milken Index subject to variability, but some series are incomplete and preliminary. In particular, several parts of the index are based on "high-tech GDP" growth. Milken does not describe the specific series that are used but does indicate that they come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) metropolitan GDP estimates. The BEA figures are not especially timely. The latest data are advanced estimates for 2012 that are not final and are subject to substantial revision. Also, estimates for the sets of industries that would be needed for a "high tech" figure aren't released for all cities in every year.

Finally, whatever information can be gleaned from the index is almost all dated. There are nine components of the 2013 index. Only one actually comes from 2013. Six components describe growth rates that ended or outcomes that occurred in 2012, and two components describe growth rates that ended in 2011.

Did Winston-Salem really change from being one of the best performing cities in 2009 to one of the worst in 2012? I doubt it.

Business writers should doubt it too.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

SNAP in NC wasn't broken before

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) under Governor Pat McCrory and Secretary Aldona Wos has fouled up one task after another. As I've been discussing in the last few posts, the department's problems with its NC FAST have delayed food assistance for tens of thousands of disadvantaged households, creating a different kind of NC FAST.

A constant refrain from Gov. McCrory and Sec. Wos throughout these debacles has been that they inherited a "broken agency." Records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, reveal a different story and show that the previous administration managed its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) caseload competently.

Each year, the USDA measures state agencies' effectiveness in administering the SNAP in three ways:
  • Payment accuracy, which is determined by quality control checks of the percentages of over-payment errors and underpayment errors;
  • Application processing timeliness, which is determined by quality control checks of the percentage of SNAP applications that were resolved within statutory limits of 30 days for regular cases and 7 days for expedited cases, and
  • Program access, which is measured as the ratio of SNAP participants to people with incomes below 125 percent of the poverty line (it approximates the proportion of people who are eligible for SNAP on the basis of their gross incomes who actually get benefits).

Under former Gov. Perdue, the DHHS performed well under all of these categories.

In fiscal year (FY) 2012, NC had an overall payment error rate of 2.32 percent, which was substantially below the national rate of 3.42 percent. The state's error rate was falling from 2.65 percent in FY 2011 and 2.70 percent in FY 2010--percentages that were also lower than the national averages for those years.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Blame-shifting during the NC FAST

Disadvantaged households in North Carolina applying to begin or continue receiving help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) have suffered through unprecedented and unconscionable delays ever since the state made changes to its NC FAST processing system in July.

Within a month of the switch-over, the backlog of unprocessed applications and recertifications ballooned to nearly 70,000.

By November, NC was reporting to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that approximately 22,500 households still had applications or recertifications delayed by at least a month and that approximately 6,500 households had those actions delayed by at least three months. The delays caused the USDA to warn that it would have to withhold the federal share of SNAP's administrative funding if processing did not improve.

Instead of improving, the state's backlog grew worse in December.

The delays have led to another kind of NC FAST, one in which poor families go hungry and in which food pantries are depleted.

Throughout this self-inflicted debacle, the state official "responsible" for the administration of SNAP, State Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos has cast blame far and wide--basically everyplace except the agency that she runs.

Targets of Secretary Wos' blame-shifting include:
  • Former Gov. Perdue. Sec. Wos claims she inherited a broken agency; nevermind that the switch-over to NC FAST occurred on Sec. Wos' watch, that the previous agency managed to get food stamp applications processed in time, and that Sec. Wos has been on the job for a year.
  • County case workers. Processing of food stamp applications slowed to a trickle immediately after the NC FAST system was introduced in July. Sec. Wos blamed county case-workers for being inadequately trained on her super-duper system, and her state social services director told case workers to "consult the training tool." But even as she and her staff said this, Sec. Wos had records showing show that nearly all county workers had been properly trained. It turns out that processing slowed to a crawl mainly because Sec. Wos' system did not work on the Internet Explorer browser--something county workers discovered on their own and had to point out to her. The browser problem went undiagnosed for a month by Sec. Wos' crack staff; meanwhile the unprocessed applications and recertifications continued to pile up.
  • The media. Sec. Wos also blamed news organizations for creating a panic that led to excessive calls and inquiries to county agencies. However, as the delays in SNAP processing not only continue but grow worse, the media-did-it explanation wears thin.
  • President Obama. Sec. Wos now blames President Obama and the Affordable Care Act for her agency's problems. The ACA requires states to streamline and align applications to the Medicaid and S-CHIP public health insurance systems with other social insurance programs, including SNAP. However, the rules for making these alignments were proposed in August 2011 (two years before NC FAST came on line) and finalized in March 2012 (15 months before the system went live). In other words, the rules were in place when Sec. Wos walked through the door. Moreover, the rules for SNAP change frequently. There are changes with almost every major farm bill, changes associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and changes when states request and received special waivers from the SNAP rules. Somehow other states managed to successfully navigate the rule changes, but Sec. Wos's agency did not. Change in the SNAP has many precedents; the delays experienced by poor NC families do not.
  • Bad numbers. Sec. Wos's agency is also now blaming bad numbers for over-stating the delays associated with the NC FAST system, with her state social services director testifying that "as many as half of the those numbers we're reporting to USDA may be of folks who have a duplicate of another application pending." This excuse makes it sound like the numbers magically appeared and ignores the fact that they were generated by Sec. Wos' own NC FAST system. Also, even if half the applications and recertifications are duplicates, there are still tens of thousands of desperate NC families waiting for food assistance.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sec. Wos's agency has taken issue with USDA's definition of "untimely."
Previous administrations have routinely processed SNAP applications and recertifications; other states are successfully processing them now.

Sec. Wos' blame-shifting is as unproductive as it is unprofessional. Despite working in her position with a salary of only $1 per year, she is clearly being overpaid. It's long past time to bring in responsible leadership.

Hungry families in NC deserve no less.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

NC Unemployment Insurance cuts hurting job growth

This past July, North Carolina's Unemployment Insurance (UI) program got leaner and a whole lot meaner when Governor McCrory and the Republican legislature cut both the number of weeks of state-funded compensation and the maximum benefit for workers. These cuts, in turn, led the federal government to cancel extended UI benefits for 70,000 long-term jobless people in the state.

Republicans claimed that the cuts would be a dose of tough medicine, spurring the jobless to accept work and leading to employment growth.

However, the cuts had the opposite effect--job growth, which was already anemic in the state, has actually slowed.

Moving the wrong direction in NC
June-November Job Growth before UI slashed
June-November Job Growth after UI slashed

Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the number of non-farm jobs in NC increased 1.35 percent from June 2013 (the month before UI was slashed) to November 2013 (the latest month available).

Over the same months in 2012, when the more generous UI state and federal systems were in place, the number of non-farm jobs increased by 1.50 percent.

Nationally, job growth from June to November was faster in 2013 than in 2012, so NC's slowdown bucks the national trend.

Why did job growth slow? Although the elimination of UI for NC's long-term unemployed may have spurred a few desperate people to take jobs, it took money out of the pockets of many, many more. This reduced the demand for goods below what it would have otherwise been and thereby lowering the demand for labor.

The policy not only punished down-on-their-luck workers (eligibility for UI requires a history of work) but also punished businesses and other potential workers across the state.

Leaner, meaner, and dumber.

Monday, January 13, 2014

SNAP delays getting worse

Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) threatening to cut off administrative funding for North Carolina's bumbling Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) and despite DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos promising that things were improving, WRAL reports that delays in processing SNAP applications and recertifications got 50% worse in December.

The November figures, which partly prompted the USDA warning, indicated that 22.500 households had their SNAP applications or recertifications delayed by at least a month and that 6,500 had those actions delayed by at least three months.

By the end of December, the number of households with applications or recertifications delayed by at least a month was 33,000 and the number with actions delayed by at least three months was 9,200. Several thousand households also had actions delayed by more than four months.

Far from improving, the delays in getting food assistance to needy families--delays that literally take food from the mouths of poor families and children--are getting much, much worse.

Meanwhile, as calls grow louder for a competent administrator to replace Secretary Wos, a spokesperson for Governor Pat McCrory said that the Governor "embraces solutions, not gimmicks."

Apparently hunger is a solution.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Wos: Hungry North Carolinians "in a very good place"

The NC FAST computer system, which was brought on line this summer to administer North Carolina's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), has suffered one catastrophic problem after another delaying food assistance for tens of thousands of vulnerable households and frustrating caseworkers who try to help those households.

WRAL reports that despite assurances from DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos and some of her highly-paid but thinly-vetted spokespeople that the problems were resolved, tremendous problems remain.

In November, Secretary Wos told WRAL that the NC FAST system was "in a very good place right now."

However, one month later, an official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that funds SNAP, threatened to suspend the state's administrative funding for the program, writing
The data  provided by DHHS indicates that more than 20,000 households continue to experience significant delays with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications and recertifications. Of these households, over 6,000 have been waiting for more than three months to receive benefits. The delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina.
Delays of over three months for food assistance for more than 6,000 of NC's neediest families are unconscionable.

Yet that's the way that things roll in Raleigh these days where the McCronies exact the Tea Party's vengeance on the poor.

Earned Income Tax Credit? Gone.

Federally-funded extended unemployment insurance benefits? Forfeited when the state cut its own UI program.

Federally-funded Medicaid benefits for low-income adults? Don't need it.

SNAP? Fill out an application and Secretary Wos will get back to you in three months, if you're lucky.

UNC-CH failing athletes and taxpayers

Just when you think you've dug out the last of the academic and moral rot at North Carolina's "flagship" university, another chunk of the school's reputation crumbles.

CNN reports on the woeful literacy skills and achievement of athletes in public universities
A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level. The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution.
and illustrates its case with UNC Chapel Hill.
As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, (Mary) Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.
Willingham is certainly an impeachable source, having contributed to the cheating scandal at UNC-CH. However, even if only a portion of what she has reported is true, she casts quite an indictment against the school and its athletic programs.

And as the CNN story makes clear, UNC-CH has a lot of company.

Nevertheless, UNC-CH's admissions practices do a shameful disservice to the affected athletes. It's one thing to open the doors of opportunity as wide as possible. It's quite another to use the unpaid services of students whose limited reading and writing skills give them almost no chance of succeeding academically.

The practices are also a disservice to the state's taxpayers, who subsidize each athlete to the tune of thousands of dollars per year. Yes, boosters fund scholarships for the athletes, but those scholarships cover only a portion of the cost of attending the university. NC taxpayers kick in the rest.

Regrettably, UNC-CH will likely continue to do whatever skeevy things it is going to do. Students and alumni should be outraged that the value of their degrees are being tarnished, but they seem too busy trying to snatch up football and basketball tickets to notice.

While the school, the athletes, the students, and the alumni are content with this, there are no reasons why it has to be underwritten by taxpayers.

The UNC system, consisting of UNC-CH and its 16 sister schools, has minimum admission requirements that involve specified high school coursework (e.g., four years of English courses and two years of another language), minimum GPAs, and minimum test scores. The state should eliminate funding for all athletic scholarship students who fail to meet these requirements.

Better yet, UNC-CH should re-dedicate itself to its educational mission.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Suffer the children

It's hard to be hopeful about the future when you see these stories of how children are used and abused.

CNN reports about a 10-year-old Afghan girl who was coerced into acting as a suicide bomber.

And here in the USA, CNN also reports on a two-year-old who is being groomed to be a thug.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Gov. McCrory Targets the poor

Gov. Pat McCrory promised he would run North Carolina's state government more like a business. It's just too bad that the business he picked was Target.

WRAL reports
A computer programming error led to almost 49,000 children statewide receiving someone else's Medicaid card last week, the state Department of Health and Human Services said Monday.

... DHHS has notified the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services of the breach of federal health care privacy regulations and will formally notify affected individuals, Terrell said. People also will receive statements of health care services provided using their Medicaid ID number so they can know whether the number has been misused, she said.
The huge violation of privacy follows a familiar and disturbing pattern for the McCrory administration.

As with several of the administration's other blunders, including the disastrous roll-out of food stamp eligibility software which delayed processing of much needed food assistance and flooded the state's food banks and its changes to the state Unemployment Insurance system which cost long-term unemployed North Carolinians their federal extended joblessness benefits, the latest foul-up harms the state's most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens.

In another part of the pattern, the Governor weaselly cast blame on everyone but his own administration. This time he blamed the prior administrations, even though his hand-picked administrator has been responsible for the administration for nearly a year, and even President Obama.

Conservative social policy emphasizes personal responsibility, at least for the poor. It's long past time for Gov. McCrory to take responsibility for his own administration and his own mistreatment of the poor.