Commentary

Reflections on an amazing summer with NC Policy Watch

Well, this is it! Today is my last day as a reporting intern at North Carolina Policy Watch, and while I am sad to leave, I know that these past twelve weeks have given me a wealth of information, experiences, and connections that I will take with me wherever I go.

I have had the opportunity to write about immigration, abortion, the budget, and the separation of church and state. I have attended rallies, legislative sessions, trials, committee meetings, and pre-trial hearings. I have spoken with lawmakers, lawyers, policy analysts, and activists about the issues which impact North Carolina and its citizens the most.

Along the way, I have worked with an incredible team of reporters who are doing great work and have inspired me to consider journalism as a career.

The press serves a crucial watchdog function, keeping track of and telling the public about the inner workings of the government. Local journalism especially is essential to our understanding of the communities in which we live and the politics which affects our lives the most.

It is vital to support and be involved with journalism at a time when facts are seen as fake and freedom of the press is under attack, both within the United States and globally.

We will always need a free press, and this internship was an incredibly valuable way for me to be part of that.

Interning at Policy Watch has given me the opportunity to write about some deeply important issues and to gain more insight into the inner workings of the NC General Assembly, the court system, and the local political scene. I will miss working here immensely.

Thank you for reading my work. You can find it here and here.


Aditi Kharod was an intern at NC Policy Watch and is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. She will spend the upcoming semester studying international diplomacy in Geneva, Switzerland.

News, Trump Administration

Trump administration proposal would end food assistance for 3.1 million people

On Tuesday, the Trump administration proposed a federal rule that would limit Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) automatic eligibility to only those households that receive “substantial, ongoing” benefits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the rule a fix to a “loophole.”

The loophole to which the USDA is referring is the policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which has been in place for two decades. The policy enables states to slightly raise SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) eligibility limits so that low-income families whose income exceeds 130% of the federal poverty line can still receive benefits.

As a result of this policy, “more than 40 states effectively use less restrictive income and asset tests in SNAP,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

“These are working families who are just above SNAP’s income cutoff,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the CBPP, to NPR.

In 2020, 3.1 million SNAP participants would be eligible because of the broad-based categorical eligibility policy, according to statistics from the USDA. Under the Trump administration’s proposed rule, the policy would be eliminated, and these 3.1 million people would no longer be eligible for food assistance.

“The proposed rule would fix a loophole that has expanded SNAP recipients in some states to include people who receive assistance when they clearly don’t need it,” said the USDA in a press release this week. “In fact, the depth of this specific flexibility has become so egregious that a millionaire living in Minnesota successfully enrolled in the program simply to highlight the waste of taxpayer money.”

The millionaire living in Minnesota, 66-year-old Rob Undersander, says he enrolled in SNAP to prove a point and to “call attention to flaws in the system,” according to U.S. Representative Dusty Johnson (R-SD). Undersander received food assistance for 19 months because his income was low during this period, even though the wealth contained in his assets qualified him to be a millionaire.

Undersander’s experience exposes the flaws in the system, Republicans say. Democrats say Undersander is an outlier who intentionally defrauded the system and took benefits away from those who most needed it.

Broad-based categorical eligibility “primarily helps households with high expenses: more than 90 percent of the resulting benefits go to households whose rent or mortgage and utility costs exceed half of their net income, and about 50 percent go to households that pay for dependent care for a child or elderly or disabled household member,” according to the CBPP.

About 36 million people currently receive SNAP benefits, a number which has declined steadily since 2013.

Commentary, immigration, Trump Administration

Trump administration’s dark immigration policy objectives are having their desired effect

In case you missed it this past weekend, The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth look at the current Department of Homeland Security, which, under Trump, has transformed from an agency with a wide range of missions into one that focuses solely on border control and enforcement.

Reportedly, at a Cabinet meeting in early 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump that to solve the immigration crisis, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen just needed to “stop letting people into the country.” Trump has seized on this idea and refuses to move away from it, despite Nielsen attempting to explain that the United States could not legally turn away someone requesting asylum at the border.

From his Muslim ban in his first week of office to the extreme “zero-tolerance” policy that led to family separation and abysmal conditions at detention centers at the border, Trump has exhibited a laser focus on toughening up immigration policy in the U.S. As the article reports:

“Supporting Trump in all this are a group of immigration restrictionists — officials and advisers who have single-mindedly pursued a policy of not just cracking down on illegal border-crossing, in the manner of conventional immigration hawks, but also limiting all immigration to the best of their ability. Chief among them is Trump’s senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller.”

Miller has encouraged Trump’s most extreme tendencies, and the article outlines how his ideas most often won out in the White House. “Increased internal enforcement,” or the policy of directing Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest and deport all undocumented immigrants living anywhere in the United States, was Miller’s idea.

The article ends on a grim note: As moderates are getting frustrated and leaving DHS, the ideas of the most extreme immigration restrictionists, like Miller, are rising to the top. DHS is now almost fully staffed by extremists.

Earlier this month, Raul Pinto an attorney in the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice Center (parent organization to NC Policy Watch) authored an op-ed in which he encouraged North Carolinians not to see the workings of the federal Department of Homeland Security as separate from the conditions within North Carolina, where the legislature is attempting to pass anti-immigrant bills such as House Bills 370 and 135. As Pinto pointed out:

“This administration’s chosen tool to address immigration is fear, whether at the border or in our communities. Read more

News

N.C. Rep. Cody Henson resigns after pleading guilty to cyberstalking

Rep. Cody Henson (Source: NC General Assembly site)

Rep. Cody Henson (R-Transylvania) announced his resignation Wednesday morning, one day after he pleaded guilty to one count of cyberstalking, accepting a deal for 18 months of probation and deferred prosecution.

Henson is already under a domestic violence order of protection preventing him from contacting his estranged wife, Kelsey Meece. As part of the deal, Henson will also have to get mental health treatment, domestic violence abuser treatment, and complete a substance misuse assessment. He will not have access to firearms for his probation period.

At the time, the North Carolina Department of Justice accepted a condition of Henson’s: that he be allowed to leave the state for legislative business despite his probation. A prepared statement by Henson’s attorney stated that Henson intended “to fulfill his commitment to represent his district” and that he did not plan to resign his seat.

Henson announced his resignation on his Facebook page.

“Earlier this morning, after much thought, prayer and discussion with my family, I submitted my letter of resignation from the N.C House, effective at noon on Friday July 26th, to the House Principle Clerk and the Speaker of the House,” Henson wrote.

“For me, this process has been exhausting,” said Meece, addressing the court on Tuesday. “Our marriage was a nightmare. There were lies, infidelity, manipulation and the list goes on. I don’t want to rehash and relive the past but Cody has put me through pure hell and made me feel completely powerless and trapped.”

Henson had reportedly threatened Meece for years, at one point telling her that he was a “trained killer” in reference to his experience in the Marines. After their separation, Henson messaged Meece repeatedly, at all hours, despite her telling him to stop.

“This is no longer the story of a respected and powerful man being brought down by a scorned woman,” Meece said to the court on Tuesday. “This is the story of a woman beating the odds and facing the giants to take her life back.”

News

State budget includes money for crisis pregnancy centers despite previous misuse of funding

Budget talks are still stalled as Republicans and Democrats spar over Medicaid expansion. But, as previously reported in this space, there are many more questionable items in both the House and Senate proposed budgets, including increased funding for crisis pregnancy centers.

Crisis pregnancy centers regularly mislead women about their pregnancies with the ultimate aim of dissuading them from getting abortions, and a recent investigation from Rewire.News shows that they have been misleading the state, as well.

According to a recent Rewire.News report—and confirmed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)—crisis pregnancy centers such as the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship misspent approximately $50,000 in public funding over five years on explicitly religious materials, which violates federal law.

Some of these religious materials included “DVDs intended to help men ‘discover authentic manhood as modeled by Jesus Christ,’” according to a 2018 Rewire report. CPCF also used federal money to buy materials such as diapers, cribs, and formula—but clients had to “earn” these necessities by “writing Facebook reviews for the center” or going to church.

“The Rewire article documented what we’ve long known about anti-abortion fake health centers in North Carolina—their claims to providing quality, comprehensive medical care don’t hold up to scrutiny,” said Tara Romano, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, in an email.

But even after DHHS disavowed CPCF’s use of public money, saying in a statement that “these expenses should not have been approved and this spending is not consistent with federal law,” the state continued to approve the use of such religious materials. According to Rewire.News:

“Documents obtained through a public records request revealed the state approved materials that encouraged parents to pray with their children, told men whose partners have had abortions to ‘handle your personal guilt before God,’ and exhorted women to embrace the ‘blessing’ of marriage as ‘a sacred institution created by God in the Garden of Eden.’”

After learning of the misuse of public funds by CPCF, DHHS failed to inform the state legislature, whose budgets include more than $2 million in recurring and nonrecurring funds to crisis pregnancy centers, many of which are subsidiaries of CPCF.

To recap: CPCF misspent a lot of federal money, so North Carolina is giving them even more state money.

Representative Julie von Haefen (D-Wake) is one of the lawmakers who reached out to DHHS independently to obtain information about anti-choice groups such as CPCF and the Human Coalition. Read more