How Can Obama Fix Overtime Pay?

Originally published in The JHU Politik on April 13th, 2014.

The Obama administration recently announced plans to revise overtime pay regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Under the law, employees who work more than 40 hours per week are entitled to time-and-a-half in overtime pay, but many categories of employees—notably “executive” and “administrative”—are exempt under FLSA. Unfortunately, within the last decade many employers have found ways to misclassify their workers as executives, managers and administrators in order to avoid paying them overtime. Now the Department of Labor wants to update the regulations by both tightening the duties that employees would have to perform in order to be recognized as managers and by raising the minimum salary threshold above $455 per week.

The Obama administration isn’t the first to amend the 1938 regulations. Back in 2004, Bush administration officials raised the minimum weekly salary threshold from $250 to $455 (or yearly salaries of slightly under $24,000 per year). They also relaxed the description of duties, effectively weakening the exemption standards for managers. This meant that fewer workers were now entitled to overtime pay than before. (Some economists argued that this regulation effectively barred more than six million workers from receiving overtime.)

At an International Association of Fire Fighters legislative conference in March, U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez said in a speech, “As a result of a loophole that was written into the regulation in 2004 by the Bush administration, quite literally somebody can work 1 percent of their time on management issues, 99 percent stacking the shelves and doing other work that has nothing to do with management, and you’re considered a manager, and you are no longer entitled to overtime.”

The original law purports to prevent employers from misclassifying their workers as managers. Indeed, regulation 29 CFR 541.2 states, “A job title alone is insufficient to establish the exempt status of an employee. The exempt or nonexempt status of any particular employee must be determined on the basis of whether the employee’s salary and duties meet the requirements of the regulations.”

However, there remain enough ambiguities that employers have found ways to still misclassify their workers and avoid paying overtime. Notably, one regulation codified in 2004 states that the law will henceforth recognize employers working “concurrent duties” of “exempt and non-exempt work” on a “case-by-case basis”—meaning that one could still be considered a manager or executive even if they are not doing managerial or executive work.

The White House is also talking about raising the minimum salary threshold. According to Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, there are 3.1 million people who would have been automatically covered by overtime provisions had the threshold kept up with inflation. 

Since 2004, the Consumer Price Index has increased by about 23.3%. So had the minimum salary threshold kept up with inflation, it would now be around $560 per week. All things considered, that’s still pretty low. The Washington Post reported that officials are considering raising the threshold to somewhere between $550 and $970 a week, or $28,600 and $50,440 a year.

The key point to understand is that just doing one of these measures is not enough to eliminate the perverse incentives in FLSA. Raising the salary threshold without tightening the duties test to be considered a manager might raise the salary of some workers but it would still allow employers to misclassify their employees as managers, and thereby skirt overtime pay.

There are also macroeconomic arguments for fixing the regulation. “By discouraging the use of overtime, we will be encouraging companies to hire more workers. This is simple logic,” wrote co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Dean Baker in an email. “If a company needs extra labor, but now has to pay a premium for working people overtime, it is more likely to fill this demand by hiring new workers. This is what we want.”

While the process of revising FLSA could extend until 2015, the administration’s initiative is good news. If the Department of Labor does this revision right, then employers will have to either pay more workers overtime, or hire additional employees. Both are desirable outcomes.     

Don’t Expect Republicans or Democrats to Tell You The Truth About SNAP Cuts

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on March 10th, 2014
———-

Despite outrage over the recent cuts to the federal food stamp program, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these reductions in benefits are unlikely to materialize, at least to the degree most observers expected. And what’s more: we can safely assume that Republicans and Democrats knew this would be the case all along.

To recap, a month ago, the passage of the trillion dollar Farm Bill included an $8.7 billion cut to SNAP over ten years. These reductions would come from tinkering with a program, used in fifteen states and Washington DC, known as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). It was designed to help individuals who require federal fuel assistance to heat their homes become automatically eligible for SNAP benefits, too. Hence the program’s nickname: Heat and Eat.

Conservatives argued that too many people were abusing the program, and that LIHEAP’s minimum fuel assistance requirement of $1 was too low for individuals who seek to also qualify for SNAP benefits. So, under the pretense of fraud reduction, Republicans pushed for the minimum fuel assistance threshold to rise from $1 to $20. The CBO estimated that this bump would cause 850,000 households to effectively lose an average of $90 per month in food stamps.

Liberals were justifiably angered by the news, and Republicans touted the move as a victory for responsible fiscal choices. But here’s the thing: low-income households are unlikely to see that level of loss in their benefits, and fiscal hawks aren’t going to see any savings.

That’s because in January’s 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress stepped in, allocating LIHEAP an additional $169 million. Consequently, last week, the Governors of Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania each announced that they would grant more of their new federal dollars to Heat and Eat so that their constituents will not lose any SNAP benefits.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Republicans and Democrats probably always knew this was going to happen. But since conveying those assumptions to their constituents might get in the way of their political spin, they kept quiet.

In New York, if Governor Cuomo shells out a mere $6 million in additional federal heating assistance, he will be able to maintain $457 million in yearly food stamp benefits. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy can allocate $1.4 million in additional federal fuel assistance funds, and maintain $66.6 million in annual food stamp benefits. And, in Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett will only need to allocate $8 million of his additional federal LIHEAP funds in order to keep an estimated $300 million in annual SNAP benefits.

Even the math-haters out there can see that those are damn good deals.

It is no coincidence that the states receiving the bulk of additional LIHEAP funds are the same cold weather states that would be most affected by the Heat and Eat cuts. New York received an additional $50 million this year— a number that makes the $6 million Cuomo needs to maintain all SNAP benefits quite manageable indeed.

This was an unusually cold winter, which helped Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) increase appropriated funds to LIHEAP. It was the first increase in low income home energy spending since 2009, according to a Senate press release.

Although it’s not unfounded to worry that these additional funds might be ephemeral, given Federal Reserve reports asserting that this year’s cold weather thwarted economic growth, political support for keeping fuel assistance programs intact in the future seems feasible.

Ultimately, of course, this is all good news. Recipients of SNAP benefits will likely continue to receive their food stamps, and states will not even have to tap into their stretched budgets to pay for it.

What’s frustrating is how both Republicans and Democrats, including President Obama, politicized this whole episode, making it downright difficult for even a discerning public to gauge how much they should worry. Republicans could feel confident that states would fill in the $19 fuel assistance gap in order to continue receiving SNAP benefits given that the incentives for such a deal are so overwhelmingly in favor of the states. If Republicans were serious about cutting food stamps, they would have gone another route. (Indeed a frustrated Wall Street Journaleditorial board lambasted Republicans as “rubes” who were suckers to “cheat and eat.”) Republicans could still claim though, however spuriously, that they heroically “cut food stamps.”

Democrats, alternatively, were able to tout their handy narrative that while Republicans were “gutting” food stamps they had tried their very best to preserve all the benefits they possibly could. (Of course, some rightly called Democrats out on their pitiful lack of resolve in the negotiations process.) But rather than come out and explain to folks that these cuts are avoidable, and that they will likely be avoided, Democrats not only condemned Republicans, but also praised themselves for responsibly “addressing fraud and abuse” in Heat and Eat.

(Don’t expect to see Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, condemn the Governors of the New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania for fraud, now.)

Light Touch

Published in the March/April/May issue of The Washington Monthly magazine.
————

If you’ve flipped on Fox News in the last few years, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen a bunch of talking heads denouncing the federal government for taking away their light bulbs.

“The government is forcing me—taking my right to choose away from me,” protested business anchor Stuart Varney about the phasing out of traditional incandescent bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient varieties. Economist Ben Stein dubbed the government’s action “raw, Bolshevik, Orwellian,” while political commentator Fred Barnes promised “to hoard hundreds of the old-fashioned light bulbs.” Other Fox voices complained about the “ugly” light quality of compact fluorescent bulbs, an alternative to incandescents, as well as their high cost and the fact that they contain mercury, a hazardous substance. “Your president is making me get rid of my incandescent light bulb,” grumbled security consultant and Fox contributor Bo Dietl. “I gotta use those toxic-waste light bulbs; if they fall you need a friggin’ hazmat suit to get at ’em!”

Spurring this agitation was the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (passed, by the way, with substantial GOP support and signed into law by George W. Bush). Among other things, the EISA established energy-efficiency light bulb standards that would go into effect in stages beginning in 2012. The regulations required that manufacturers produce light bulbs that are at least 25 percent more energy efficient than traditional incandescents, a standard that Thomas Edison’s 135-year-old technology simply could not meet. Retailers would still be able to sell the incandescent light bulbs they had in stock, but eventually most consumers would be left to sift through alternative options.

The conservative attacks caught on not just with Fox viewers but with millions of nonpartisan Americans. Why? Because the primary alternative consumers initially had, compact fluorescents, really were awful. The pigtail-shaped contraptions cost three to ten times more than an equivalent incandescent bulb, emit a weird harsh glow, and break easily, not only releasing their small amounts of toxic materials but also undercutting the lasts-longer-than-traditional-bulbs arithmetic behind claims that they were an economic benefit to consumers. Even many latte-sipping urbanites reacted in horror. “I would, in a way, pay anything to avoid fluorescent,” artist Laura Stein told the New York Times. “I can’t stand them—I’ve always hated them and I will not use them.”

Yet the frustration of shoppers and the whining on Fox News has died down considerably in recent months. The reason is a new kind of household bulb that started hitting store shelves en masse late last year. These are bulbs made up of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs—the ubiquitous little indicator lights you see on computers and other electronic devices. The new household LED bulbs are essentially comprised of hundreds of little LEDs of different colors that together emit a white light that is softer and more pleasant than that of compact fluorescents. They cost about the same as the latter, but their prices are falling fast. They last about twenty-five times longer than incandescents and three times longer than compact fluorescents—up to 25,000 hours of light per bulb. They don’t break easily or come with aggravating health concerns. Best of all, they are up to 80 percent more efficient than traditional incandescents, which means significantly cheaper energy bills for consumers.

The coming (and staying) of LED bulbs is a case study in how government policy, rightly done, can spur private-sector innovation. While small LEDs were being sold for use in electronics as far back as the early 1960s, the technology to deploy them in household light bulbs was still fairly far off when Congress passed the EISA in 2007. In 2009 the New York Times reported on LED bulbs that exceeded $100 a piece and suffered from “performance problems,” adding that they “may not displace incumbent technologies” anytime soon. But the new market for energy-efficient bulbs that was scheduled to open up in 2012—and even earlier in Europe, thanks to European Union regulations similar to the EISA—gave lighting manufacturers an enormous incentive to step up development. The EISA also contained another inducement: a $10 million cash prize to the company that could develop the best high-quality alternative to the 60-watt incandescent. Philips won the competition in 2011 for an LED product that amounted to an 83 percent energy savings. But the bulbs weren’t cheap: when they first hit the U.S. market, they cost $50 a piece.

Meanwhile, conservatives began to rally hard against the forthcoming light bulb standards. Redstate.com editor Erik Erickson launched the attack in late 2010 with an open letter to the GOP congressional leaders who were about to take control of the House: “If you do only one thing in your time in Washington, and frankly I hope you do only one thing given your propensity to expand government … it is this: SAVE THE LIGHT BULB.” In January 2011, Texas Republican Representative Joe Barton introduced the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, a bill designed to repeal the energy-efficiency light bulb standards. Michele Bachmann soon followed suit with her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. “Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the light bulb. If you want to buy Thomas Edison’s wonderful invention, you should be able to!” Bachmann told a group of supporters in 2011. “The government has no business telling an individual what kind of light bulb to buy.”

When January 1, 2012, rolled around, lighting companies, thanks to the EISA, stopped making new 100-watt incandescents. With compact fluorescents the only real alternative on the market at the time, the mainstream press had a field day, highlighting miserable and indignant shoppers furious with the law and the federal government—a story that perfectly fit the Tea Party backlash narrative of the moment. Even Mitt Romney, despite having supported energy-efficient light bulbs as governor of Massachusetts, hopped onto the bandwagon. In front of a Chicago crowd in 2012, Romney declared, “And the government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh yeah, Obama’s regulators actually did just that.”

On January 1, 2014, the new EISA-mandated standards for 40- and 60-watt bulbs—which comprise 80 percent of the residential lighting market—were to kick in. That too might have been a boon to conservatives, had prices for LEDs remained high. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Energy had predicted in 2011 that 60-watt LED bulbs wouldn’t fall to $10 until 2015. But to almost everyone’s surprise, the industry hit that target two years early. By the end of 2013, you could head into Home Depot or Walmart and purchase LED bulbs for under $10. Their cost plummeted more than 85 percent between 2008 and in 2012 alone, and experts anticipate that prices will continue to fall steadily as retailers compete to be the leading LED bulb provider.

This is good news for the environment. The Department of Energy predicts that the widespread use of LED bulbs could save annual energy output equivalent to that of forty-four large power plants by 2027.

It’s also good news for the economy. The LED lighting market is anticipated to expand by 45 percent per year through 2019. The regulations shook a moribund industry that had yielded few, if any, new technologies in more than 100 years to finally invest in R&D and compete for new innovative products with a higher margin. Indeed, even as Americans start swapping out their incandescent bulbs with $10 LEDs, a whole new line of higher-end LEDs is hitting the market. These have chips built in that connect them to the internet, enabling you to brighten or dim them, or even change their color and hue, with your smartphone.

The only people for whom all this is not good news are conservative ideologues, who have suddenly seen one of their handiest examples of overbearing government turn on them. Of course, there are endless examples of government spurring private-sector innovation. Think semiconductors, the Internet, and the GPS industry. LED bulbs are a case of government getting it exactly right: writing a law and regulations that didn’t favor specific companies or technologies but set standards for performance that the private sector had to meet, with a bit of federal money thrown in to accelerate the process. Still, the idea that regulation and innovation can and often do go hand in hand is one conservatives struggle to get their heads around.

The War on Bulbs is no longer as widespread on Fox, but there are still some dead-enders. In January of 2014, Tim Carney wrote in the Washington Examiner that the federal government is still going to try to push compact fluorescents down everyone’s throat and that LED bulbs will never be cheap enough for people to afford for their homes. (He failed to mention, of course, the staggering drops in LED pricing that have already taken place.) That same month, Republicans managed to cram into a $1.1 trillion spending bill a provision barring the Department of Energy from spending money to enforce the new light bulb standards, though with the LED market having already taken off this is likely to have little effect. And just to be safe, South Carolina Republican Representative Jeff Duncan introduced the Thomas Edison BULB Act, which would repeal the light bulb efficiency standards altogether—thereby positioning the GOP as Luddite defenders of nineteenth-century technology. Fortunately the bill, like the larger conservative war on light bulb standards, doesn’t have much juice behind it.

The Conversation About Hopkins Tuition Is Long Overdue

Originally published in The JHU Politik on February 24th, 2014.
——-

Johns Hopkins undergraduate tuition has risen from $37,700 in the 2008-2009 academic year to $45,470 in 2013-2014. This steep increase is one that continues to grow, virtually unquestioned by the student body, and with no end in sight.

Hopkins has defended the rising price, saying that tuition increased each year at only an average annual rate of 3.8%, compared to an average annual rate of 5.6% in the five years prior. But still, it’s well worth asking, what is this money for?

This past month, the Delta Costa Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan social-science organization came out with a new report on costs in higher education. The report, “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education“, concluded that between 2000-2012, expansion in wages and salaries in higher education came not from instruction or academic support but from student services, including athletics, admissions, psychological counseling and career services.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it, “just as a cable company bundles channels together and makes you pay for them all, whether or not you watch them, colleges have bundled counseling, athletics, campus activities, and other services with the instructional side to justify charging more.”

Hopkins and other universities have rationalized their expansion of student services by pointing to external regulations as well as pressure from students, parents and policymakers. Indeed issues like sexual assault and campus mental health have received substantial news coverage recently. And there are some new positions, like the Director of LGBTQ life on campus, which were enthusiastically met with widespread approval.

However, there is more to the story.

JHU Political Science professor, Ben Ginsberg, has written a book entitled “The Fall of the Faculty” which delves into what he observes as severe bureaucratic bloat in higher education. He sees our nation’s burgeoning administrative sector driving up the cost of education with little verifiable value in return. He contends that the growth of the administration has resulted in a shift of power away from the faculty.

“In the old days, if the President of the University lost the faith of the faculty he couldn’t do his job,” said Ginsberg in an interview. “Now he circumvents that and the president has become relatively autonomous. It’s presidential imperialism.”

As Ginsberg argues in The Washington Monthly, “Universities are now filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.”

We go to a private research university, so the rising costs of our education carry different political significance than that of state institutions, which are also seeing increases in price. And yet, it’s a mistake to think that somehow negates the difficult impact of these costs.

Notably, the financial aid budget has increased under President Daniels’ administration, with grant aid for Homewood undergraduates increasing from $50 million in 2008-09 to just under $75 million in 2013-14. According to Director of Media Relations, Tracey Reeves, more than 40% of Homewood undergraduates receive assistance to offset the cost of attending Johns Hopkins.

Nevertheless, while expanding the amount of assistance is surely good, with an ever-increasing cost of attendance, at some point it just becomes impossible for many students who might have otherwise been able to attend. Then at that point, our students, faculty and administrators have to ask themselves if the administrative growth and the expansion of student services is worth it at the expense of making the cost of attendance too expensive for many otherwise qualified students to afford.

Perhaps there could be alternative models for degree seeking students, for those who want to come and get a Johns Hopkins education but do not want or cannot afford to pay for the sectors of the University that they will never plan to utilize, like student activities, Greek life and athletics.

Or perhaps the status quo, with hopes that financial aid can adequately meliorate the burden, is the best solution given the difficulties of implementing any alternative system. There aren’t easy answers to these questions.

The point is, however, that our school has never really had the opportunity to openly discuss and debate these issues and explore the larger consequences of these growing economic trends.

 This must change; none of these choices are, or should be mistaken as, inevitable.

Interview With The Governor Of Maryland: Martin O’Malley

Originally published in The JHU Politik on February 16, 2014.

Martin O’Malley, who has served as the Governor of Maryland since 2007, sat down with the JHU Politik to share his thoughts on some of the most relevant issues pertaining to college students in Maryland, as well as his legislative plans for the future. O’Malley’s history with Johns Hopkins runs deep; he previously served as Mayor of Baltimore City from 1999 to 2007, and before that he worked as a Baltimore City Councilman from 1991 to 1999. While he has not yet confirmed or denied the speculation, Governor O’Malley is widely considered to be a serious contender for the 2016 presidential election.

Since your time as Mayor of Baltimore do you think the relationship between Hopkins and the city has changed?

I was elected Mayor in 1999, I think over the years the relationship between Johns Hopkins and the neighbors of East Baltimore has improved. I think you see some physical manifestations of that improved relationship in these new school buildings here, and the redevelopment of this East Baltimore area north of Johns Hopkins. There was a commitment by Johns Hopkins to make sure that we were not only creating more jobs adjacent to their campuses but that we were also rebuilding the fabric of the community that had been hit hard violence and by the abandonment that the open air drug markets had caused here.

To see the [Henderson Hopkins School] open shows that Johns Hopkins sees the future of the institution intertwined and very dependent upon the future of the neighborhoods that surround Johns Hopkins. And that’s a positive thing. None of us are so powerful and mighty that we can ever separate ourselves from the broader community in which we live and work and achieve.

My sophomore year I took a class called “Baltimore and The Wire.” It was taught by Peter Beilenson, who served as Baltimore City Health Commissioner from 1992-2005, during your time as Mayor. What is your take on the iconic show? Do you feel it is a fair depiction of the city?

I think The Wire accurately depicted the conditions that we had allowed to rise up in far too many of our neighborhoods. I mean for years we failed to push back on the proliferation of open air drug markets in our city and it robbed a lot of families of their legacy wealth, of their homes, of their neighborhoods and of their sons’ lives.

Hopefully there will be another show, provided we can get back on track here. From 2000-2009, Baltimore had achieved the largest Part 1 crime reductions any major city in America and we need to do that again, we need to do it every decade for the next several decades. And as we do, we’ll see the city growing in population, growing in opportunity, growing in prosperity.

As an undergrad you took a semester off from school to work on Gary Hart’s presidential campaign. What role do you think students play politically within Baltimore City and Maryland at large? Do you think students should be getting more involved in the political process?

Well I think the process always benefits when young people are more involved rather than less. One can see the direction of a state, a city or a country from the attitudes of its young people and the sooner those attitudes find their way into government, campaigns and party platforms, the better. It accelerates the curve of progress. I think young people were instrumental in President Obama’s election and reelection campaigns, and both my campaigns for Governor. Young people were a huge part of what propelled us into office.

Many of us will soon be graduating and entering into the ominous job market. What sorts of policies do you think would be most effective to help ensure employment and what sorts of things do you also hope to see in the absence of a robust hiring scene?

Here’s the good news and bad news for the people in the class of 2014.  The good news is that the financial markets and banking institutions were stabilized by the actions that President Obama took several years ago. Our industrial base was rescued by the actions that the President and Congress took with our auto industry and the good news is that we’ve now had 47 months straight of positive job growth.

Last year we moved more people from welfare to work than in any other single year since these numbers have been kept. That is why we have also increased the earned income tax credit to reward hard work and it is also why this year we are pushing for an increase in the minimum wage. These things are all steps we can take. And if you look at what is happening in Maryland in terms of upward economic mobility, it would appear that the balance of steps we are taking is actually working because the Pew Foundation ranked us as one of the top three states in America for upward economic mobility at a time when there has been a hollowing out of our middle class.

But while things that we are doing are working, we are part of a larger national and global economy. We need as a nation to invest in the fundamentals of a stronger economy. I’m talking about education, affordable college, the infrastructure, water, transportation, cyber and R&D. It’s what our parents and grandparents did. It’s what we’ve done at every generation but for some reason we became distracted for the better part of the last thirty years by this phony theory of trickle down economics that says that if you cram as much of the country’s wealth into the hands of the fewest people then that will somehow lead to a burst of opportunity and jobs. It doesn’t work that way. It never has.

What initiative are you most excited about for this legislative season?

The one I’m most excited about is actually raising the minimum wage because it allows for us to hold a larger conversation and gives us an opportunity to talk about a host of actions we’ve been taking as a state. There are so many people from across the political spectrum who all agree that nobody who works 16 hour days should have to raise their children in poverty. So it’s an opportunity to have a larger and more inclusive conversation rather than speaking past each other with ideologies and old formulas.

The Farm Bill And The Continual Erosion Of The Social Safety Net

Originally published in the JHU Politik on February 9th, 2014.
———————–

Last Tuesday the U.S. Senate voted on a new bill that authorized nearly $1 trillion to be spent on nutrition programs and farm subsidies over the next decade. NPR lauded Congress for their “rare display of bipartisanship” and The Washington Post praised the Farm Bill as “a rare bipartisan accomplishment.”

If you can get past the banal Newspeak of national political coverage for just a moment, you can see this bill for what it really is. The $8.7 billion in cuts to food stamps, while certainly marketed as “a necessary compromise” and a “tough choice during tough times” has been, and always will be, just a bargaining chip for lawmakers. In a period where millions of Americans are struggling to pay for housing, healthcare, food and energy, the self-congratulatory rhetoric coming out of Congress is truly repugnant.

Make no mistake. Our wealthy nation can afford to distribute food stamps. Though not as severe as the original $40 billion in cuts proposed by House Republicans in September, these cuts are still, nonetheless, wholly avoidable. These fiscal choices are reflections of our society’s current priorities. That’s why the bill neither includes a means-testing provision that would reduce insurance subsidies for the wealthiest farmers nor even guarantees the significant savings it purports to bring. (While Congress touts that this bill cuts $16.5 billion from the deficit over the next decade, 2/3 of those cuts wouldn’t take place until 2019, after the bill has expired and the political circumstances have likely changed.)

The cuts to food stamps in the Farm Bill come from changing a program known as “Heat and Eat” which allows states to coordinate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) with SNAP benefits.  It was designed to help the poorest Americans avoid needing to make the hard choice between paying for food and paying to heat their homes. The Heat and Eat program is used in sixteen states, and while these states distribute about 36.5% of all SNAP benefits nationwide, they will bear 100% of the food stamp cuts.

850,000 households will effectively lose an average of $90 per month in food stamps. Elderly and disabled Americans will be disproportionately impacted by the cuts, as shown by the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization. And according to Census data released this past September, the overall poverty rate for disabled Americans stands at 21.4% and for African-Americans an incredible 36%. At a time when more than 1/5 of Americans, and 1/3 of African-Americans living in poverty suffer from a disability, we are moving to cut funds for programs specifically beneficial for those vulnerable citizens.

President Barack Obama has been quiet throughout this congressional fight. While there was once a time, way back in June, when the White House threatened a presidential veto over the House GOP’s proposal for food stamp cuts, those days are long gone. Obama quickly signed this bill, and the cuts, into law.

Representative Frank D. Lucas (R-OH) remarked that the Farm Bill “ is legislation we can all be proud of because it fulfills the expectations the American people have of us.” It certainly doesn’t fulfill my expectations. Obama even goes so far as to say that the bill will “protect the most vulnerable Americans” and we have fortunately avoided “gutting the vital assistance programs” millions depend on.

Is “not gutting” our new standard for success?

There are more than 46 million Americans currently living in poverty. If the President is serious about reversing the deepening social inequities in this country then he’ll need to make stronger defenses for anti-poverty programs, particularly when their future is threatened.

And the Democratic Party, a party that paints itself as bulwarks of the social safety net, should be ashamed. 46 Democratic senators and 166 Democratic congressional representatives voted yes to cutting food stamps, despite their frequent stump speeches about inequality and economic struggle.

Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) praised her colleagues for “working across party lines.” But we certainly don’t have to praise them. As citizens, as students, we must fight against the pressure to think that any “bipartisan bill” is cause for celebration.

This one is surely not.

Should Adelson, Bennett and Lieberman be welcome at Hillel?

Originally published in Haaretz on January 1, 2014.
——————-

Last week, the Swarthmore Hillel student board voted to reject Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, allowing them to work with students of all political perspectives. Hillel President Eric Fingerhut responded by taking the once suggested guidelines and declaring them mandatory practice. The guidelines lay out that, “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Fingerhut told the JTA that “under no circumstances” will Hillel host “anti-Zionists” who reject Israel’s Jewish character, as they undermine Hillel’s commitment to Israel as a Jewish homeland.

But what of those who impugn Israel’s democratic character?

In a follow-up interview, Fingerhut made clear that the guidelines will be “applied across the political spectrum.” If Hillel International is now enforcing the Israel guidelines, then we need to know how they will be applied for those on the hard right who challenge Israel’s democratic commitments.

Would a prominent member of Knesset, like Naftali Bennett, who unflinchingly opposes a two-state solution, be barred from the Hillel building? Would we ban Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, who has said that when push comes to shove, Jewish and Zionist values should trump democratic ones? When those on the left question Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic commitments by calling for one-state, Hillel draws the line. But will it do so for the right-wing one-staters in the Israeli cabinet?

The Haredi Jewish community poses another critical question. A sizable number of Haredi Jews are avowed non- or anti-Zionists. Of course not all are antagonistic towards the state of Israel, but it is crucial to know if Hillel will bar Haredi Jews who reject a modern state of Israel from the communal conversation. Can we write off the political commitments of the Haredi community, the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community?

Hillel International endorses a two-state solution, as demonstrated by the strong consensus in our community that two-states is the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and democratic state in the future. If one calls for a one-state solution, can they still be in the tent?

Sheldon Adelson, a prominent funder of the program which provides Israel Fellows to 67 campus Hilllels across the country (not to mention one of the biggest funders of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program) has openly voiced his deep disdain for a two-state solution. If he believes in a one-state scenario in which a minority of Jews control a majority of Arabs, can he be welcome at Hillel? It certainly doesn’t seem like it under the current guidelines.

Unfortunately, there are also those who take active political steps to undermine Israel’s democracy. Members of the Jewish Home political party, now a part of the ruling coalition, called for a number of Arab parties to be banned from Parliamentary elections in 2009. Will the Jewish Home party be added to the list of banned groups with which Hillel refuses to co-sponsor?

If this is beginning to sound a bit crazy to you, it’s because it should. Even though they pose significant challenges to the Israel’s democratic commitments, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman should not be banned from Hillel. And though I find Sheldon Adelson’s politics reprehensible, I wouldn’t deny him the right to speak. Because I know my community is best served by a rigorous and deeply challenging conversation about Israel. I know that we cannot create a future generation of thoughtful, compassionate, intellectual Jewish leaders by barring uncomfortable voices. And those uncomfortable voices, especially on this issue, won’t go away by ignoring them.

Despite Fingerhut’s insistence that the overall discontent with the Israel conversation at Swarthmore is a mere “aberration,” this is not the case. As polls demonstrate time and again, young Jews want to see an end to the occupation through two-states. We’ll need a broad conversation to lead us there: a discussion that includes voices from across the political spectrum. As a pro-Israel and pro-peace student, I do not agree with anti-Zionists, but I still want to hear their perspectives. But I know I need to engage with everyone and take action with those who share my political values.

I take Eric Fingerhut at face value that from now on, speakers who question Israel’s democratic commitments will be as restricted as those who question Israel’s Jewish character. And so all invested in this discussion need to know: are Bennett, Lieberman, and Adelson welcome in the Hillel building?