Commentary

Cooper proclamation neatly sums up harsh reality facing the formerly incarcerated

Gov. Roy Cooper

Here’s something you don’t see every day: an official gubernatorial proclamation that’s worth a couple minutes of your time. Most such proclamations are milquetoast, of course: bland recitations of noncontroversial truisms that usually do little more than serve as backdrop for honoring a group or individual — a ball team or a retiring politician.

Today, however, Gov. Roy Cooper took the somewhat unusual step of listing some important and difficult truths about an important and difficult subject in a new proclamation. Here’s the text:

WHEREAS, the vast majority of the more than 37,000 people currently serving sentences in North Carolina prisons and jails will transition into communities throughout the state; and

WHEREAS, these formerly incarcerated individuals will be come part of a population of more than 1.5 million North Carolinians with criminal records; and

WHEREAS, helping people with criminal records become productive members of society benefits their families and communities in many ways, including improving safety and preventing and reducing crime; and

WHEREAS, formerly incarcerated individuals face numerous challenges that include finding work, housing, health care, and transportation, and these challenges may lead to recidivism, health, social, and security concerns; and

WHEREAS, federal, state, and local leaders have worked to establish policy that supports individuals who return to their communities after serving time in prison, jail, or under custodial supervision; and

WHEREAS, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has developed the North Carolina Reentry Action Plan to facilitate a better transition for people from incarceration or community supervision back into society by coordinating existing resources, identifying resource gaps, and advocating on behalf of individuals with criminal records; and

WHEREAS, in 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly established the (SRCC) to be chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Erik A. Hooks; and

WHEREAS, the SRCC includes representation from government, education, faith-and community-based organizations, and those formerly incarcerated, and is studying the needs of individuals who have been released from correctional institutions and working increase the effectiveness of local reentry councils; and

WHEREAS, North Carolina’s 14 local reentry councils connect justice-involved individuals with resources and services important to successful reentry, and decrease stigma by raising public awareness of the issues and challenges faced by formerly incarcerated individuals as they reenter the community;

NOW THEREFORE, I ROY COOPER, Governor of the State of North Carolina, do hereby proclaim April 23-27, 2018 as “REENTRY WEEK” in North Carolina, and commend its observance to all citizens.

Roy Cooper, Governor

Good for Cooper and the groups doing this important and often bipartisan work to reverse some of the damage wrought by our state’s ill-conceived and decades-long incarceration obsession. Click here to learn more about efforts to promote second chances for North Carolina’s formerly incarcerated. Let’s hope Cooper’s proclamation helps spur another year of real progress in this important area.

Commentary, News

New report: Amazon a top employer of food assistance recipients

Good lord — maybe this is why Amazon is considering coming to North Carolina.

A new report for The Intercept by reporter Claire Brown of the New Food Economy (a UNC-Chapel Hill grad) reveals that the retailing giant Amazon is employing lots of workers at such low wages that they qualify for food assistance. This is from Brown’s story (“Amazon Gets Huge Subsidies to Provide Good Jobs — but It’s a Top Employer of SNAP Recipients in at Least Five States”):

“Later this year, Amazon will begin accepting grocery orders from customers using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal anti-poverty program formerly known as food stamps. As the nation’s largest e-commerce grocer, Amazon stands to profit more than any other retailer when the $70 billion program goes online after an initial eight-state pilot.

But this new revenue will effectively function as a double subsidy for the company: In Arizona, new data suggests that one in three of the company’s own employees depend on SNAP to put food on the table. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, the figure appears to be around one in 10. Overall, of five states that responded to a public records request for a list of their top employers of SNAP recipients, Amazon cracked the top 20 in four….

The American people are financing Amazon’s pursuit of an e-commerce monopoly every step of the way: first, with tax breaks, subsidies, and infrastructure improvements meant to lure fulfillment centers into town, and later with federal transfers to pay for warehouse workers’ food. And soon, when the company begins accepting SNAP dollars to purchase its goods, a third transfer of public wealth to private hands will become a part of the company’s business model.”

In addition to being just plain disgraceful, this hard truth about Amazon’s penurious pay policies is also, obviously, lousy publicity for a monstrously large corporation that actively seeks other public subsidies from states and localities seeking to site facilities in their areas. All of which might explain why North Carolina could be a perfect match for Amazon — at least in the company’s eyes. This since our legislative leaders generally don’t believe in giving food assistance to people in need.

At least, that’s the conclusion that one can easily draw from the repeated successful efforts and threats of GOP leaders to slash eligibility for SNAP benefits — even in struggling areas of the state in which the prospect for finding gainful employment were essentially non-existent.

In short, conservatives seeking to woo Amazon have an obvious new motto for their recruitment efforts: “Come to North Carolina, Amazon. We care even less about your workers than you do!”

Click here to check out Brown’s story.

Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center

This simple graph sums up NC’s “tax the poor, feed the rich” tax system

In case you missed it on Monday, the latest edition of Prosperity Watch from the N.C. Budget and Tax Center neatly sums up one the most pernicious aspects of North Carolina’s tax system: its favoritism for the rich.

Tax season comes to a close this week, and Tax Day serves as a good time to reflect on who pays taxes in North Carolina. The income tax is, naturally, at the foremost of our minds, but often ignored as one of the best tools to align our tax code with taxpayers’ ability to contribute to and help build thriving communities.

North Carolina’s adoption of a flat income tax rate – after years of having a graduated income tax rate – has made our tax code more upside down, asking less of those with the highest income. A graduated income tax applies a higher rate on every dollar of income above certain thresholds, while a flat rate delivers a bigger tax cut to the state’s wealthiest taxpayers.

The reduction in the share of their income paid in state and local taxes—through this change as well as others since 2013—means fewer dollars for investments in the pathways that connect people to opportunity such as quality early childhood, K-12 education, and affordable post-secondary education. It also means that middle- and low-income taxpayers continue to pay nearly 10 percent of their income annually in state and local taxes, nearly two times as what is paid by the top 1 percent with average income is $1 million.

This upside down approach to raising the revenue needed for public schools, health, and well-being is also unlikely to perform over time. Without a tax code that aligns with where income growth is happening – concentrated at the top – over time the dollars available for public investments will fall short of what is needed.

 

Commentary, News, What's Race Got To Do With It?

Say what? GOP changing its tune on drug testing for public assistance

The conservative Washington Examiner reported yesterday that Republicans in Congress may be backing off of their support for requiring food assistance beneficiaries to submit to drug testing.

This is from an article entitled “Opioid epidemic quiets GOP calls for food stamps drug testing”:

“Republican leaders say they will reject a drug testing requirement when they consider food stamp legislation this week, a dramatic change in position that’s mostly a response to the nation’s opioid epidemic.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway said he’ll vote against any drug testing amendment to the Agriculture and Nutrition Act, otherwise known as the Farm Bill, which is set for committee markup Wednesday.

‘Given the heightened awareness today of the opioid crisis in this country as well as other drug addictions, punishing people at this point in time when we are working to get them off these programs may be counterproductive,’ Conaway said.”

Hooray for Rep. Conaway! As with the American Right’s better-late-than-never conversion on the broader question criminal justice generally — where even the Koch Brothers and their minions have finally come to the realization that the nation’s mad rush to lock up a huge proportion of its population was hugely wasteful and doomed to failure — the flip flop is extremely welcome. The sooner that Americans of all ideologies finally learn to treat drug abuse as a public health crisis and non-abusing drug use by adults as an entirely private matter, the better.

Still, as with so many other policy shifts resulting from the opioid crisis (e.g. the conservative “180” on the availability of opioid reversal drugs and clean needle exchange programs), one can’t help but wonder if this change would have happened if the most publicized face of American drug abuse was still a person of color using crack rather than a down-on-his-luck, white Midwesterner addicted to painkillers.

The hard truth is that, for decades, America’s war on drugs has been a war on African Americans. Now that conservative whites are finally waking up to the reality that drug addiction and the behavior associated with it can afflict people of all backgrounds, let’s hope it opens more eyes to racial inequities that continue to plague so many other aspects of our society.

Commentary

Pardon me if I don’t celebrate Dale Folwell kicking 600 people off the state health plan

Dale Folwell

State Treasurer Dale Folwell  — who previously made denying people unemployment insurance benefits a top priority during his destructive tenure at the state’s Division of Employment Security — got himself the thing so many right-wing politicians always seems to covet most last week: a blaring, front page headline in which they get “credit” for cutting some poor souls off from some public benefit program. As some readers may have noticed, the N&O’s print edition on Friday featured a front page, above-the-fold story by reporter Will Doran detailing Folwell’s action to kick 601 people off the state health plan, whom he claims were ineligible.

The story says this is all the result of an audit the Folwell helped to launch when he took office last year and that it could, at least in theory, save the state around $3 million — assuming (and it’s a rather big assumption) all those kicked off really are ineligible and that they would have stayed on the program for a full year without being detected or leaving on their own.

The story also says that Folwell has slapped a new $25 per month charge on a plan that used to be free — which it describes as a “cost saving measure.”

Pardon me for not celebrating. Sure, it’s always good for public officials to make sure public benefits they help administer are only flowing to those who are entitled to them. That ought to be a basic, boiler plate duty for any government official in such a role.

That said, such things also need to be kept in perspective. Yes, we should keep public programs from being nickeled and dimed by ineligible individuals, but if anyone thinks that’s where the real money is when it comes to government waste, fraud and abuse, I’ve got some concrete I’d like to sell you for a new DOT highway. The General Assembly wastes $3 million on do-nothing special sessions and giveaways to fat cat special interests with connections to Tim Moore and Phil Berger practically every time it’s in Raleigh. And none of that spending involves providing people access to healthcare.

And that latter fact serves to highlight the broader and even more important point about Folwell’s “accomplishment” — namely the absurdity of a health care system that turns access to what ought to be a fundamental human right into an enormously confusing game of cat and mouse in which average citizens (and even public employees) must constantly negotiate a web of ever-changing rules and regulations.

The bottom line: Folwell could save the state of North Carolina a helluva lot more money and, more importantly, save a lot of human lives, if he would devote his energies to helping convince his fellow conservatives to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and building a health care system for all. That’s the kind of accomplishment that would truly be worthy of a self-promoting P.R. campaign.