The Ghost of Christmas Present

Ignorance and Want

LePage proposal would end assistance to asylum seekers.

In this time of ice storms, sluggish employment, and reduced federal food assistance, our governor celebrates the season by cutting our state’s last-resort assistance to the poor. The logic? They are people who are escaping from war.

I heard the sentiment I felt reflected back quite eloquently as I listened to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on my drive home today. Ebenezer Scrooge visits the working poor Cratchit family with the Ghost of Christmas Present and observes their celebration.

Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle.

These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily. Then Bob proposed:

“A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us.”

Which all the family re-echoed.

“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

He sat very close to his father’s side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before,”tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit. Say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.”

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Carrying All of Our Debt

‘Tis finals time here on the old factory floor. For those of us working with a student body that is largely first-generation college attendees we’re watching some especially critical dice rolls. Will students choose to focus on their final assessments? Will they be able to rearrange their work schedules to spend the extra time making sure they’ve got everything done? Will various children and other family members stay well enough not to jeopardize study schedules?

If the answer is yes, they will be likely to pass their courses and enroll in another semester, whittling down the requirements on the way to a four-year degree.

If the answer is no, they might not pass. They might not complete enough of their courseload to qualify for another semester of financial aid. They might not feel that they’re progressing quickly enough to be worth all of the sacrifices they’re making, all of the debt they’re accruing, all of the sleep they’ve lost and bosses they’ve pissed off. The end of the semester is when they decide to throw in the towel.

What I know, and what is not commonly enough known, is that these students are making decisions for all of us. These are the students who will increase our total pool of educated Americans – an outcome we all desperately need in order to complete our transition to a globalized economy. The students who will add to our collective educated workforce are not the students whose families would always ensure that they would complete college. It’s the students who are doing something different than their parents did, because they hope it will give them a better future than the one they’re looking at right now.

And to do that, they have to gamble with their own credit, and with a bill that’s many magnitudes higher than any that they’ve seen before. At higher family income levels, college finances are mainly managed by students’ parents. In the world I work in, this is not the case.

This is what this phenomenon looks like, under current college prices:

From D. Indiviglio, "Chart of the Day: Student Loans Have Grown 511% Since 1999." The Atlantic.com. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/08/chart-of-the-day-student-loans-have-grown-511-since-1999/243821/

From D. Indiviglio, “Chart of the Day: Student Loans Have Grown 511% Since 1999.” The Atlantic.com. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/08/chart-of-the-day-student-loans-have-grown-511-since-1999/243821/

Generally, we talk about entering into debt as a choice – and often a morally distasteful one. Debt has long philosophic associations with guilt, and modern debt-counseling services associate debt with immature traits like impulsivity and irresponsibility. However, for students whose families do not have the means to pay for college, they face a financial catch-22: either they assume a large amount of debt, or they face increased likelihood of a lifetime of low earnings and frequent unemployment.

These are two unpleasant options. What’s also too bad is that when students choose not to assume the personal debt, society at large loses. When an individual takes on that debt to complete college, we all gain an additional college-educated member of our community. We gain in collective skills, our location has additional skilled labor to attract employers, our unemployment rate and crime rate are likely to go down, and a “virtuous cycle” is initiated whereby the children of that person are also more likely to go to college.

This virtuous social outcome of the individual’s sacrifice is known in economics as “external benefit“: society at large benefits from an individual’s private actions. It is the job of governments to help markets “internalize” these benefits so that we get socially optimal outcomes. It benefits all of us, collectively, to have everyone who wants to complete a college degree do so because of the strong collective benefits to increasing our proportion of college graduates. The way that we have historically recognized this public benefit of higher education, and sought to support it, is through state-subsidized higher education.

Unfortunately, despite our crying need for more high-level education completion in this country, we are doing less and less of this. Between 2007-2008 and 2012-2013, 38 of the US states decreased their spending on higher education. Of the remaining 12 states, only 4 — Illinois, Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota — increased spending on higher education at a rate that exceeded inflation.

state support

Data from the Grapevine Annual Compilation of State Fiscal Support for Higher Education, http://grapevine.illinoisstate.edu/index.shtml.

In many states, the only way to make up for these kinds of cuts has been to dramatically increase tuition levels. In Arizona, tuition at the state’s public universities nearly doubled (91%) between ’07-08 and ’11-’12. In California, during the same period public tuition rose 77%. (This is a particular tragedy since California has over 9.2 million potentially college-bound children, the highest number of any state in the country.) Only a handful of states saw an increase in tuition rates of less than 20% during the FY 08-FY 13 period.

How have students collectively responded to this? Undoubtedly, by attending college in lower numbers than they otherwise would. For those who do attend, they take on more personal debt.

Educating students under these conditions, their debt swirls around us like a kind of ethical test. Are we giving enough value? Is their investment worth it? I take this responsibility seriously and try to be sure that whatever I do, I am leaving them more employable, more savvy about what they can do to improve their chances.

But the real ethical test concerns our collective responsibility to the people who will be – or who will not be – bringing our country out of economic stagnation. When we cut support for higher education, we collectively decide to rest more and more of the weight of our transition on the shoulders of underresourced young people. And maybe they’ll make it, and maybe they won’t.

But we should all be more aware of what we’re implicitly asking from them at a social level. For those who try despite the high price tag, we should understand that students’ willingness to sacrifice their own money, uncertainty and financial risk actually puts us in their debt.

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What it Means to Be From Maine, Decennially Speaking

Politics is popping up like a Jiffy-Pop pan on a hot stovetop around here! Getting into a pretty exciting season. I’ve got several posts in various stages of development but I’ve got too much going on to finish any one of them to satisfaction. Luckily, it’s never too late or too soon to pontificate on all things demographic.

This post is brought to you thanks to my son, who in the car today asked me, “Mom, where’s the middle of Maine?”

I said, “Well, do you mean geographically speaking or in terms of where the people are?”

He is six, so I am pretty sure this was overthinking the question.

He said, “You know, where is the middle of the state?” so I said, “Well, in terms of land I’d say it’s a little above Bangor, but in terms of people it would be a lot closer to Portland.”

Where do you think it is? Guess, then scroll down.

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It’s Brownville Junction – I was way off.

Now, what about our population center? According to the US Census, the “mean center of population” calculates “the the point at which an imaginary, weightless, rigid, and flat (no elevation effects) surface representation of the [geographic entity] would balance if weights of identical size were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person.”

This was a new thing for me to check out this evening, and I was really delighted to find it presented so comprehensively by our friends at the Census. Here’s what they put together to show the movement of the country’s population center between 1790, our first national census, and our most recent decennial census in 2010.

us pop centerOther fun facts available at the Census reveal that our national population center shifted the greatest geographical distance (and in a westerly direction) between 1850 and 1860. Our population made its most northerly shift between 1860 and 1870. And between 2000 and 2010, we collectively moved our greatest distance south.

So what about Maine? What do you think is our current population center, and how far do you think it’s moved in the last 100 or so years? Guess, then scroll down.

MaineOnce again I was way off! If you click the map above you’ll go to the Google map I made using the US Census files on state population centers. In the late 1800s through early 1900s, our state population center hovered around Athens and Harmony. It did drift south over the next hundred years, but somewhat less dramatically than I had imagined.

For the period between 1910 and 1950, the mean center of our state population stayed fairly close to Skowhegan. In 1960, it shifted fairly dramatically, to just south of Waterville. Since that time it has been shifting regularly south, with our present population center lying in the eastern reaches of Augusta.

I think it’s useful to think about this in connection with our observations about the state. We spend a lot of time thinking about southern Maine as the state’s primary economic engine – and it is indeed very important – but it’s also important to reflect on the fact that we live scattered across a very large geographical territory, with more people distant from that environment than living within it. This is the meaning of being the most rural state in the US.

And who is going to best be able to leverage this complicated distribution to his advantage come next fall? A great question for an upcoming post!

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SNAP cuts: county-level losses — and new need

snap by county

(Percentage of each county that receives SNAP benefits: Lincoln county lowest, at 8.2%; Washington county highest, at 22.4%. Data is from the US Census American Community Survey Selected Economic Characteristics 2011 5-year estimates.)

We’ve seen some coverage of cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program which went into effect on Friday. This current set of cuts – which is technically the early sunset of a provision that increased SNAP payments - is likely to be further deepened by the budget measure passed by House Republicans. The House Republican-backed food stamp bill cuts $40 billion from food assistance over the next ten years and would see 4 million participants removed from SNAP next year.

The November 1 cuts reduce benefits for recipients by about 5%:

How will this affect the states and localities?

Pew States has a very useful interactive graphic which allows you to compare the impact of SNAP cuts from state to state:

Maine example

Maine has the 10th highest level of SNAP enrollment in the country, with 251,000 of our 1.33 million residents using the program. If we assume an average benefit of around $124 per person, per month, that 5% cut equals a loss of $1.5 million worth of money for food to Maine families each month. If we use the table listed above and assume an average $9 monthly cut per person, that’s more like a $2.25 million monthly cut to Mainers’ food purchases. (It’s also a monthly loss of $1.5-2.25 million to Maine food stores. This is a national problem for large food retailers like Walmart and Target, who have lowered their earnings forecasts accordingly.)

Again, as readers of this blog and/or attentive observers of Maine might expect, this cut will disproportionately affect food insecurity and sales in northern, western, and downeast Maine since these regions have higher proportions of people receiving food assistance. However, in this case we should also remark on the sheer volume of cuts in the more populous counties. While the proportional impacts will be highest in Maine’s poorer counties, there will be sharp increases in the demand on Portland and Bangor-area soup kitchens and food pantries as those areas absorb a larger number of increasingly needy people. If we assume that the November 1 adjustments represent a $9 reduction in benefits per person, per month, then Cumberland County will need to find an additional $1.5 million in food support for its needy population over the next year to cover that cut.

cost of snap cuts

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What is the impact of 81,000 missed appointments?

estimates mainecare rides

I have been wondering for a while about the statewide cumulative impact of the MaineCare rides debacle on patients keeping their medical appointments, but it’s challenging to get current year data on Mainecare expenditures. (From the current administration, it’s hard to get it on recent past years, let alone current year. I have a renewed appreciation for what the Baldacci administration did well, including providing decent display tools for DHHS data as well as a number of other agency sources through Maine.gov DataShare.)

This wall was somewhat breached by the numbers provided in today’s article by Steve Mistler on this week’s hearing before the legislature’s Health and Human Services committee meeting. Daniel Donovan, director of the Aroostook Regional Transportation System, found that, under the current outsourced system of ride arrangements, his group had provided 9,762 rides in September. In September 2012, under the old Maine-based system, the group had provided 16,192 rides. This represents a 40% drop in rides provided – and, presumably, Mainecare-insured appointments attended – in Aroostook County. (Aroostook Regional Transportation System serves all of Aroostook county, plus a little bit extra.)

This information also gives us some sense of what the scale of the problem might be in the entire state. We can use the US Census American Communities Survey 2011 data to find out how many people have Mainecare insurance per county.

number mainecare

As you might suspect, the absolute number of Mainecare insurees is highest in places with the largest population. Maine’s most populous counties have the largest number of people insured by Mainecare.

Looking at the percentage of county populations that use Mainecare insurance, however, provides a different perspective. Here we see the familiar two-Maines breakdown. Southern and mid-coast Maine have a lower than average percent of population using Mainecare, northern, western and downeast Maine have a higher than average percent.

percent mainecare

Then, putting the Census information together with the cited data from Tuesday’s hearing, we can see what the Mainecare rides debacle means, substantively, for access to care in the various counties.

We can discover what percentage of all Aroostook Mainecare insurees got rides in September 2012 and September 2013. In 2012, 72% of Aroostook Mainecare insurees got rides from Aroostook Regional Transportation System. In 2013, 44% of them got rides. We can use these proportions to estimate what this would mean, if the rest of the state looks like Aroostook county in terms of the impact of the outsourced ride coordinators.

It would mean 81,004 missed medical appointments.

In one month alone.

That is just phenomenal. About a quarter of the state uses Mainecare in order to receive health care and DHHS’s continued use of their outsourced ride coordinator is dramatically reducing their access to service.

Hmmm. Why could they be tolerating such a terrible outcome? These are people who we as a state have determined are legally entitled to these services. These are people who are using medical services to meet what their (poorly reimbursed) doctors have determined are real medical requirements.

On the DHHS side, that may be something on the order of 81,000 appointments in September that they somehow didn’t have to pay for.

It will be very interesting to watch what happens to DHHS expenditures during the months of August 2013 and on. When we talk about balancing our state budget “on the backs of the most vulnerable,” savings realized through this method could not be described in more accurate terms.

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Governing Style and the Emergency

As the hours ticked by and the federal government teetered into partial shutdown, we all looked up to the sky (or in the newspapers) and wondered what would happen next. And for most of us, immediately…nothing. The impact of the federal shutdown was immediate on a small subset of American workers and their families. For the rest of us, it was ripples of various sizes, at various distances from us. Slipping into the shutdown was like pulling our canoes down into the water ahead of unknown rapids. The potential for serious damage looms, but there’s so much uncertainty that it’s hard to know exactly where it will come from, or when.

States experienced both the immediate impact and the prolonged uncertainty. The impact on states has and will continue to vary. States which depend on fall tourism to federal parks or monuments have felt a massive impact, as has occurred most strongly in Maine with Acadia. Federal funding of important food-security programs like WIC has stopped, leading to a horrified- but variable-wait in individual states for state funding to run dry. Activists and private philanthropy are stepping in as an imperfect stopgap measure. (For example, Twitter user @FeministHulk has provided one resource for tracking state-by-state WIC resources.)

The federal failure to fund many other similarly important federally-funded programs and positions has affected every state in the country. However, it’s affected them in different ways depending on the programs, size, and individual socio-economic qualities present in each state.

Just as the impact on states has varied, state responses have varied quite a bit too. Virginia, which is the state most affected by the federal shutdown, has responded by easing the process for state and federal employees who have been furloughed to register for unemployment. Alaska similarly has a large number of federal workers per capita. There, the governor has used his bully pulpit to argue with the US Department of the Interior for the opening of Alaskan federal lands. (The National Weather Service staff stationed in Alaska have been doing their part as well.) In Alabama, also among the states most affected, district court employees have been asked by the court’s administrative judge to work without pay. Connecticut’s governor determined that the federally-funded Head Start program was so critical to his state that he used his budgeting powers to find additional state funding for it to continue operating. Similarly, Utah’s governor found emergency funds within the budget to pay to reopen Utah’s national parks, in order to avoid the continuing devastating impact on Utah tourism. In North Carolina, individual agencies have been managing their substantial furloughs: their state’s DHHS told 337 employees not to come in to work this week.

In all of these cases, we see that states have been able to respond to the shutdown by exercising their normal powers of governance. In particular, if you look through the stories about how states have dealt with the shutdown, you see many people throughout state agencies behaving competently, making hard decisions as problems come at their individual departments.

In our state, the governor chose–as he so often does–to forge his own path. Rather than depending on his agency heads to make good decisions about how to respond to the specific problems they encountered, the governor decided that he needed more power to direct the state unilaterally. Not only was this a unique gubernatorial response to this federal shutdown, but as far as I could find is also unique over the collected state responses to both the 2013 and the 1995-1996 shutdown taken together. (In the previous shutdown, states even became adept at finding ways to blunt the effects on their state by paying attention to political headwinds and planning ahead for it.)

Even Florida’s executive branch chose a less confrontational path, sending only a letter to agency heads to instruct them not to substitute state money for missing federal funds. The governor of Wyoming acted similarly, moving so quickly that he needed the power of Google to keep up with his speed in letting affected employees know how to access unemployment and benefits. (You know you’re a small state when your lone webmaster apparently doesn’t have time to toss up a brief page on the state website for you.)

The idea that declaring a civil emergency and permitting the governor to suspend laws and rules was the most responsible or an inevitable way to deal with the federal shutdown begs credulity. It suggests either that Maine has a truly unusual set of laws which uniquely binds our governor’s hands or that Maine is more strongly affected than all other states. In its announcement, meanwhile, there was no evidence presented that the agency heads who were closest to the issues faced specific insurmountable constraints.

However, this decision to micromanage agency response to the shutdown by arrogating all decision-making power to himself has a strong echo across other demonstrations of the governor’s governing style. In the past, the governor has prevented department commissioners from testifying before committees. Upon entering office he issued a formal “gag order,” telling all department heads to run their comments to the legislature or media by his office first. And who could forget the feat of micromanagement achieved in the waning days of the last legislative session, where the governor managed to crush all previous total Maine gubernatorial veto records–as well as setting an impressive precedent–with 21 prospective laws vetoed in a single day?

The LePage Emergency is somewhat baffling when viewed alone, and very suspicious if you’ve been the subject of many of the governor’s frequent attacks, but somewhat more predictable if we observe his pattern. The governor seems generally to prefer that he alone (or perhaps with his robot legislature) makes all of the state’s decisions. This is not the only way to respond to the shutdown – and I believe that it will also not prove to be the best way – but in context it is not entirely surprising.

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Amazon Wades In to Maine Politics – Mobilized Blogger Army to Follow?

What happens when the 800 lb gorilla of online retailing doesn’t like your state law?

In response to Maine’s implementation of a requirement that online sellers collect Maine sales tax, Amazon is shutting down its Maine Associates program. The Associate program is an Amazon advertising program where individual bloggers or website managers can link to products they like, and Amazon gives them a small percentage of the sales price for any sales generated through that link.  In theory, dissatisfied bloggers will lobby the state government to force it to end the implementation of its tax. On the other hand, many state business interests see it as being unfair that Amazon is undercutting their prices because they aren’t held to the same sales tax collection standards. This seems additionally unfair since local businesses are already supporting our state through paying the overhead of maintaining brick and mortar stores in the state, hiring Maine-based employees (no matter how apparently unemployable we are), supporting other Maine-based businesses, and generally making things locally available that you might need:

I didn’t realize this before I started looking into it this morning, but Amazon has used the strategy of shutting down an Associate program in response to the state’s implementation of its sales tax with other states. California was one of the earlier recipients of the Amazon policy to end state residents’ access to the Associate Program when their state instituted a law that online sellers selling goods to state residents collect sales tax. The most recent experience to Maine’s that I could find through a quick online search was in Missouri, where the business cut off Associate partners just last month. Here was the state of affairs with regard to Amazon’s use of this strategy in 2011:

This obviously has continued to evolve.

As the map reveals, where Amazon really wants to continue to make money with a state, it doesn’t necessarily maintain this policy. Amazon now collects sales tax on behalf of Virginia and California, for example. In the case of the agreement it reached with California, the business is also apparently obliged to support the effort to create a national online sales tax. Of course, while the national online sales tax passed the US Senate (with both Democratic and Republican suport) it did not get through the US House, where members had more pressing issues to deal with.

While I don’t expect that second part of the agreement to be effectively enforced anytime soon, it does make it pretty clear that Amazon is testing its political strength against that of state governments. In the case of Amazon v. California or Amazon v. Virginia, Amazon is apparently not yet able to best the will of the state government. I’m not sure who I’d bet on in Amazon v. Missouri, however.

And Amazon v. Maine?

I think it will depend to some degree on the political will of the people who Amazon is attempting to mobilize through this move. Here are the blog responses that I’ve found to the issue so far:

Three Cents’ Worth

Webmaster Source

As Maine Goes

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