Stop requiring college degrees for jobs that don’t need them

Originally published in on March 19, 2023.

When President Joe Biden recently touted the hundreds of billions of dollars invested into American manufacturing in the last two years, he included a talking point that previous Democratic presidents might not have bragged about. New factories in Ohio, he said, could offer thousands of “jobs paying $130,000 a year, and many don’t require a college degree.”

When Biden highlighted those non-college jobs at the State of the Union, it was just three weeks after Pennsylvania’s new Democratic governor Josh Shapiro eliminated the requirement of a four-year college degree for the bulk of jobs in Pennsylvania state’s government, two months after Utah’s Republican governor Spencer Cox did the same, and nearly one year after Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan set off the trend. Since the president’s State of the Union, Alaska’s Republican governor Mike Dunleavy has also followed suit.

Maryland’s newly elected Democratic governor, Wes Moore, plans to continue opening up state jobs to non-college-educated workers, confirmed his spokesperson.

For liberal politicians like Moore, Shapiro, and Biden, promoting policies to help the more than 70 million American workers who never graduated from college is rooted partly in politics, as Democrats have struggled recently to earn support from non-college-educated voters, especially men. After decades of prioritizing college attendance, the Democratic Party has been scrambling to figure out how to change the widespread perception that its leaders are out of touch with the struggles of average people.

But the announcements we’ve seen haven’t just come from Democrats looking to appeal to voters or just from elected officials. And they’re not even mere reactions to the heightened competition for workers, though that’s part of it.

The moves are the result of a concerted effort, backed by staggering research and a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign, to educate employers on broken hiring practices that have needlessly locked two-thirds of the workforce out of higher-paying American jobs. For decades, more and more job postings have reflexively required college degrees. Now it’s finally being recognized this was a mistake.

Why so many jobs started requiring college degrees that didn’t before

The story of college degree requirement creep begins back in the 1980s, as employers started to hire globally for workers and tech automation started to change the nature of many domestic jobs in America. As routinized factory work began to be replaced by machines or outsourced to other countries, one consequence was a shift toward expecting workers to handle more social tasks, with so-called “soft skills” that facilitate collaboration like conscientiousness and the ability to make small talk.

Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the US labor force, according to Harvard education researcher David Deming. As a hiring proxy for this, companies started to turn to four-year college degrees.

These trends accelerated during the Great Recession, when employers had a labor surplus to choose from. Of the 11.6 million jobs created between 2010 and 2016, three out of four required at least a bachelor’s degree, and just one out of every 100 required a high school diploma or less.

These changes were documented in a 2017 study led by researchers at Harvard Business School. Their report, “Dismissed by Degrees,” found more than 60 percent of employers rejected otherwise qualified candidates in terms of skills or experience simply because they did not have a college diploma, and that the imperfect BA proxy had many negative consequences for workers and companies alike.

One of the researchers’ most revealing findings was that millions of job postings listed college degree requirements for positions that were currently held by workers without them. For example, in 2015, 67 percent of production supervisor job postings asked for a four-year college degree, even though just 16 percent of employed production supervisors had graduated from college. Many of these so-called “middle-skill” jobs, like sales representatives, inspectors, truckers, administrative assistants, and plumbers, were facing unprecedented “degree inflation.”

The report pointed to employer surveys that showed workers without college degrees were often considered just as productive on the job as their college-educated counterparts. They were also less likely to turnover and less expensive for companies to hire. Degree inflation was particularly harmful to Black and Hispanic job applicants, the researchers noted, since they’re less likely than white applicants to have college diplomas.

“That report was a wakeup call for companies but it definitely took some time to get out there,” said Elyse Rosenblum, the founder of Grads of Life, a nonprofit that backed the study and encourages businesses to adopt more diverse hiring practices.

Rosenblum’s group grew out of work that began during the Obama administration to help so-called “disconnected youth” — referring to the roughly 4 million young adults, ages 16-24, who were neither working nor in school. These efforts led to a national 2014 “Grads of Life” ad campaign, followed soon after by a national organization with the same name.

Another major player focused on degree inflation is Opportunity@Work, a group founded in 2015 originally to support an Obama White House initiative dedicated to expanding the tech hiring pipelines. In 2019, Opportunity@Work turned its full attention to helping all 70 million workers without four-year degrees. To refer to these workers, they coined the term “STARs”, an acronym for Skilled Through Alternative Routes.

“We felt it was important to name this talent category for what it is, a skilled talent group,” explained the group’s chief operating officer, Shad Ahmed.

Opportunity@Work helped bring about more discourse-shifting research. Working with Peter Blair, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in March 2020 they published their first study, “Reach for the STARs,” which found that workers in low-wage jobs often have skills that are in high demand by higher-wage employers. Over 5 million workers without college degrees, they noted, were already in jobs paying at least $77,000 per year, proving “that a bachelor’s degree is not the only route to gain skills for higher wages.”

Nine months later, Opportunity@Work published a second report, looking at mobility barriers among high-skilled non-degree holders, and launched a hiring database to help connect STARs with local employers.

The tightening labor market, George Floyd’s murder, and the pandemic all sped up hiring reform

Years before governors and the president started talking about degree inflation, some companies were already ahead of the curve. Perhaps the most widely recognized leader is the technology conglomerate IBM, which back in the Great Recession realized it needed to loosen its hiring requirements to stay competitive.

“They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s essentially where we found ourselves about 10 years ago,” explained IBM’s chief human resources officer, Nickle LaMoreaux, pointing to the shortage of skilled tech workers, the “half-life” of tech skills, and the fact that two-thirds of US adults lacked bachelor’s degrees. By 2021, half of IBM’s US jobs no longer required a college degree.

Ahmed said in addition to a tightening labor market, George Floyd’s murder and the attention that brought to structural racism in America generated new focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in businesses.

“Nonessential degree requirements aren’t race-neutral,” Ahmed and Blair wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2020. “They embed into the labor market the legacy of black exclusion from the U.S. education system—namely, the antiliteracy laws that made it illegal for blacks to learn to read, the separate and unequal schools that kept them from catching up, and the limited progress since then on policies designed to remedy racial discrimination.”

In December 2020, in response to Floyd’s death, business leaders launched the OneTen coalition with the goal of placing 1 million Black Americans without college degrees in “family-sustaining jobs” over the next decade. The high-profile effort was led by IBM’s executive chairman and Merck’s chief executive, and included leaders from companies like Cisco, Nike, Target, and American Express. One year later, the coalition announced it had expanded to include 60 member companies. Part of their work involves identifying alternative ways to discern whether workers possess the skills they need.

This past September, a new chapter in this broader culture-shifting work began. Developed in partnership between Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council, a nonprofit that sponsors public service advertisements across the country, a campaign to “tear the paper ceiling” launched, focused on removing barriers to workers without college degrees. Nearly 50 national groups participated in the campaign’s launch at an event co-hosted with LinkedIn.

There’s evidence of an “emerging degree reset”

The hard work is starting to pay off. Earlier this year, the New York Times editorial board published a piece that praised the work of companies like IBM and governors like Josh Shapiro for expanding their hiring practices to include individuals without college diplomas. “Making college more affordable is important, but there are other keys to the doors of opportunity as well,” they wrote.

Last year, researchers from Harvard Business School and the Burning Glass Institute found evidence of what they called “an emerging degree reset” in hiring. By analyzing over 51 million job postings dating back to 2014, the researchers found that between 2017 and 2019 roughly 46 percent of “middle-skill” and 37 percent of “high-skill” occupations no longer asked for a bachelor’s degree, and instead had job postings listing technical and social skills instead. The report concluded that based on the trends they were observing, an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees in the next five years.

“Jobs do not require four-year college degrees,” the report’s authors wrote. “Employers do.”

Getting more employers to rethink their degree requirements will take hard work. Rosenblum, of Grads of Life, said one of the biggest barriers is just changing mindsets. “Employers have grown up in a system where the four-year degree is the proxy and there’s a perception that it’s risky to do something different,” she said.

So far, there is no perfect, universal alternative assessment to identify the professional skills employers have previously relied on a Bachelor’s degree to signal. But Rosenblum and Ahmed from Opportunity@Work say there’s a lot of work happening right now to develop those tools, such as creating micro-credentials for individual industries. Software developers reflect a good example of an industry that has embraced new hiring practices, partly because employers have found other ways to verify the quality of someone’s coding skills, making college degrees less relevant. The challenge is finding out how to create comparable assessments for other fields.

Ahmed said there’s still a lot of work to do to get managers to realize that STARs are half of the talent pool. “Many just do not know, we’re all in our own cocoons,” he said.

New data released this month suggests employers are hiring at a slower rate, and economists still warn of a possible recession this year as inflation persists. Advocates for hiring workers without college degrees say it’s critical that employers don’t revert to the same flawed hiring proxies they adopted following the last big economic downturn.

“I do have frankly a lot of concern,” said Rosenblum. “We’re having a lot of change in our labor market, things are weakening, and we’re seeing companies doing hiring freezes and layoffs. We’re spending a lot of time talking with business leaders about the need to make sure we don’t go back to what happened in the 2008 recession.”


The sole US supplier of a major abortion pill said it would not distribute the drug in 31 states

Originally published in on March 17, 2023.

Earlier this month, Politico broke news that Walgreens, the nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain, assured 21 Republican attorneys general that it would not dispense abortion pills in their states should the company be approved to dispense them. The decision was met with sharp protest by Walgreens customers, abortion rights activists, and Democrats, who accused the pharmacy of caving needlessly to pressure.

But fear of state prosecution is not the only factor shaping Walgreens’ decision-making. Another previously unreported constraint on the company is that its sole supplier of Mifeprex — the brand-name drug for the abortion pill mifepristone first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000 — circulated a list to its corporate clients in January naming 31 states that it would not supply the abortion medication to. Vox spoke with two sources who had reviewed that list recently.

The sole US distributor for Mifeprex is AmerisourceBergen, one of the largest pharmaceutical distribution companies in the world. (The federal government is currently suing AmerisourceBergen for allegedly distributing opioids while knowing they would later end up on the illegal market. The Pennsylvania-based company has denied this.) Back in January, AmerisourceBergen created its list of 31 states using as a source the website of the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive research organization that tracks state abortion restrictions, according to sources with knowledge of the list’s origin.

The list’s existence underscores the precarious state of abortion rights in the US in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson — the 2022 Supreme Court ruling that struck down Roe v. Wade, effectively leaving abortion rights to each state. Walgreens drew condemnation for saying it would not dispense abortion pills, even in states where it’s currently legal to do so. AmerisourceBergen’s list indicates another reason influencing Walgreens’ stance: a distributor — it’s the only one for this drug — had signaled that it would not supply pharmacies with abortion pills.

Walgreens and Danco Laboratories, the manufacturer of Mifeprex, declined to comment. A source with knowledge of the contractual agreement between Walgreens and AmerisourceBergen told Vox that the parties are legally barred from talking publicly about the supplier, but that advocates have been trying to persuade AmerisourceBergen to adopt a less risk-averse stance on abortion-pill distribution.

Lauren Esposito, a spokesperson for AmerisourceBergen, told Vox over email that the situation “is dynamic and ever evolving. Any information that you’re referring to from January is certainly out of date by now. Additionally, as I’m sure you can appreciate, for contractual purposes we are not able to discuss specific products.” The company later released an additional statement, emphasizing that AmerisourceBergen does not “independently decide what medications should be available to health care professionals as part of their treatment plans” and does “not make clinical decisions or values-based judgements on which FDA approved products it distributes.”

Vox asked Guttmacher about the supplier’s list and its reported use of the institute’s site as a guide for compiling the list. “We would like to understand what data AmerisourceBergen is basing these claims on, as we are not aware of any policies that would prevent the shipping of mifepristone to such a large number of states,” said Elizabeth Nash, a Guttmacher policy analyst. “Private companies should be extremely careful not to limit access to mifepristone in response to threats from anti-abortion groups or politicians.”

Abortion rights advocates and consumers responded with outrage to the Politico report, calling for a boycott of Walgreens until it reverses its stance. At particular issue is the fact that four states on Walgreens’ list — Montana, Kansas, Iowa, and Alaska — have restrictions on pharmacists that are blocked in court. California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would not renew a multimillion-dollar contract with the pharmacy chain to signal his disapproval.

Walgreens spokesperson Fraser Engerman maintained the company’s position hasn’t changed, and that they still intend to dispense mifepristone “in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so.”

In January, the Food and Drug Administration announced that brick-and-mortar pharmacies could apply for certification to sell abortion medication at their stores, a move hailed as an important step toward expanding access to the safe and effective drug that has become the most common method for ending pregnancies in the United States.

Representatives from CVS and Rite Aid, which like Walgreens said they would seek certification, have remained conspicuously quiet on the issue for the last two weeks, and did not return requests for comment. (No drugstore has yet been certified, and it is not clear how long the process will take.)

The ongoing debate over what pharmacies like Walgreens can and should do when it comes to dispensing mifepristone reflects the political challenge of navigating the patchwork of conflicting state abortion restrictions in the post-Roe era. With a bevy of new laws and litigation, individuals, abortion providers, and companies are left to make consequential decisions in a highly fraught and confusing legal environment — which, in the case of Walgreens and AmerisourceBergen, means inaction in the face of uncertainty.

Pharmacists are caught in the middle

Caught in the middle of this legal and political tug-of-war are abortion providers. While it’s easy for Democratic governors in states like Illinois and California to tell companies they should dispense medication abortion, it’s harder to insist that they should put their pharmacists at risk.

“Violating the has-to-be-done-by-a-physician requirements in some of these states is punishable by jail,” a Walgreens spokesperson told the New York Times. “In other states, it’s punishable by a civil fine, and in a number of them it’s punishable by licensing sanctions. And so these are restrictions that present real risks to pharmacists.”

The 21 states where Walgreens has said it will not dispense mifepristone fall into a few different categories, explained Nash of Guttmacher. Some have banned abortion entirely, while others have laws requiring physicians to dispense drugs in-person, or require in-person counseling and ultrasounds, making the prospect of dispensing mifepristone through a pharmacy impractical. And still others, like Alaska, should feasibly be able to dispense through a pharmacy, Nash said.

“Overall there’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace as pharmacies and pharmacists try and follow all the laws and regulation and litigation,” said Ilisa Bernstein, the interim CEO of the American Pharmacists Association. “It’s unsettled right now.”

Bernstein told Vox that beyond legal risks, members are grappling with new safety issues: “Pharmacy team staff safety is a concern, whether it’s getting into the pharmacy and going through people who may be demonstrating and picketing outside or in the pharmacy, where team members want to be sure they’re in a safe space when they’re working,” she said. Recently anti-abortion activists protested Walgreens’ annual shareholder meeting, casting drugstores as the new abortion clinic.

Next week the American Pharmacists Association is holding its annual meeting where hundreds of delegates from across the country plan to revisit the group’s policies on mifepristone and reproductive health care.

Regardless of what pharmacists want their group’s policies to be, they will remain bounded by the FDA’s Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS) list, a restrictive designation the federal government places on mifepristone over the objections of groups like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Pharmacists will also be circumscribed by the lawyers of their companies, and other actors involved in the medication abortion supply chain, like drug distributors and lawmakers.

Esposito, the spokesperson for AmerisourceBergen, told Vox, “We continue to make FDA-approved medications, including reproductive health medications, available to health care facilities and providers in all 50 states and territories that meet local, state, and federal requirements to distribute and dispense.”

But whether AmerisourceBergen will let Walgreens and other drugstores sell Mifeprex in all the locations pharmacies would be willing to dispense them from is another question.

Homeless encampments — and the debate over what to do about them — explained

Originally published in Vox on March 8, 2023.

In mid-February, a block from the White House, agents with the National Park Service cleared the largest homeless encampment in Washington, DC. More than 70 people had pitched tents in the downtown federal park known as McPherson Square, and all were forced to leave, with 60 days to claim any belongings left behind.

The encampment was long scheduled to be cleared in April, when the people living there would no longer be in danger of hypothermia. But in January, local DC officials requested it be cleared early, and the federal government agreed, citing increased complaints about trash and debris, sex work, and harassment of visitors. Over the past six months, three people had died due to exposure or drug overdoses.

One day after the clearing, roughly two-thirds of those evicted from the park were still believed to be sleeping on the street.

DC is just one of many cities across the country grappling with the rise of tent encampments and associated political pressure to address them: encampments have increased in prevalence since the pandemic, even as homelessness in the city has gone down. Last year a Washington Post poll found 75 percent of local DC residents backed shutting encampments down.

The federal government’s role in the McPherson Square clearing made the challenges and contradictions of these encampments especially sharp. Local and national homeless advocates were outraged: they had called on the Biden administration to wait until the city had identified permanent shelters. They say their offer to help city officials find housing was rebuffed. The clearing, they argue, also stood in direct conflict with the Biden administration’s recently released national strategic plan on homelessness, which said that closing encampments without providing adequate support and housing was an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that provided other cities with cover to do the same.

“If they don’t stick to their federal strategic plan, how do we expect any other community to abide by it?” said Ann Oliva, the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Unsheltered homelessness, meaning sleeping somewhere at night that’s not primarily designed for human residence — like a car, a park, an abandoned building, or a train station — has risen sharply over the last seven years, and at a faster rate than homelessness overall. The unsheltered homeless now account for 40 percent of all homeless people in the country, up from 31 percent in 2015.

While encampments are most common in big cities, on the West Coast, and in areas with high housing costs, tents have also sprung up in places where housing is broadly available and homelessness is going down — like Houston, which saw a 63 percent drop in homelessness since 2011 but still has hundreds of encampments throughout the region.

For decades, a promising strategy for dealing with homelessness has had bipartisan support: the “housing first” model, which prioritizes getting people into permanent housing without requiring them to first address mental health conditions or substance abuse. In recent years, the strategy has experienced unprecedented attacks and been blamed for exacerbating homelessness.

In Washington, Houston, and elsewhere, political leaders have argued that rising public discontent with encampments threatens their long-term ability to tackle homelessness. Due to a lack of affordable housing, and in some cities, available shelter beds, many homeless people have simply nowhere to go.

“Mayor [Sylvester] Turner believes addressing tent encampments is key to maintaining support for the housing-first model because the public didn’t believe with their own eyes that homelessness was actually decreasing in the city,” said Marc Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Houston’s mayor on homeless initiatives. In the past few years, Houston leaders have “decommissioned” 59 tent encampments, including the city’s largest last month. In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser stressed that her support for encampment clearing was rooted in her commitment to the housing-first model.

“I could build half a million units of housing,” newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass told the Los Angeles Times, “and if there are still tents, people will not believe that you did anything except to steal their money.”

The McPherson Square clearing sat at the middle of a national tug-of-war over homeless encampments. On one side are homeless advocates who maintain that dismantling encampments without clear plans to move inhabitants into stable housing is both cruel and counterproductive. On the other side are conservatives calling to crack down on people sleeping outside, blasting what they describe as a too lenient approach to homelessness by Democrats. Liberals can’t use a lack of affordable housing as an excuse to avoid taking action on encampments, they say, given that it could take decades to build more housing units.

Left in the middle are city officials, struggling to balance their commitment to ending homelessness with the very visible signs of its continued existence — and so are the hundreds of thousands of people sleeping outside and in cars, whose lives will be deeply affected by their leaders’ decisions.

What we know about homeless tent encampments

Encampments refer to outdoor places people live for periods of time with built structures like tents, and personal belongings. They can be found in public areas and secluded corners of cities, and their populations range from just a handful of people to hundreds.

While most cities do not collect good data on encampments (they track instead the broader category of unsheltered homelessness) many have cited increases in the last several years. The federal government recently acknowledged gaps in its understanding of encampments, citing difficulties in collecting data on people who often “actively try to escape public notice.”

Still, experts broadly agree the problem is getting worse, and researchers say the primary cause is a lack of affordable housing, stemming from both a shortage of units, and from rents rising faster than wages. They say encampments have also increased because people can’t access shelter beds, or have objections to the requirements at local shelters, like the need to relinquish their pets and personal belongings. Other people see tent encampments as offering more opportunity for privacy and safety than shelters.

Some encampments have established governance procedures and residents take on day-to-day responsibilities, while others are more informal and more fractious. Though inhabitants have a diverse range of ages, races, and gender, research suggests most tend to be men with multiple barriers to housing like mental illness, a history of evictions, or a criminal record.

In recent years, court rulings have made it more difficult for cities, especially on the West Coast, to clear encampments. In 2018, the US Ninth Circuit Court found people experiencing homelessness can’t be punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no adequate alternatives available.

The decision only formally applies across the West, in areas under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, but when the US Supreme Court declined to hear this case, Martin v. City of Boise, in 2019, cities nationally were left to debate how they can respond to encampments in ways that will avoid new constitutional challenges. Boise says that as long as sleeping indoors is not an option, “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

The impact of the Boise ruling is playing out every day. Just before Christmas, a district judge cited Boise when she ruled that San Francisco can no longer enforce encampment sweeps, since the city lacks enough shelter beds to move the homeless into. San Francisco Mayor London Breed decried the decision. “We already have too few tools to deal with the mental illness we see on our streets,” she said. “Now we are being told not to use another tool that helps bring people indoors and keeps our neighborhoods safe and clean for our residents.” The city appealed the ruling in January, arguing it’s “unnecessarily broad and has put the City in an impossible situation.”

In other cities, officials have concluded Boise means they can no longer enforce certain laws against people experiencing homelessness. In Phoenix, for example, citations for outdoor camping dropped dramatically since the ruling — from 283 in 2017 to just 9 in 2021. More than 1,000 people have moved to a downtown Phoenix encampment called “the Zone,” and local residents are currently suing officials for the situation. Meanwhile, a federal judge issued an injunction in December, barring Phoenix officials from conducting encampment sweeps if there are no shelter beds available.

Whether sanctioned outdoor camping sites would be legal under the Boise decision if a city lacked indoor shelter beds remains unclear, and some policy leaders are urging officials to test the legal boundaries and find out.

“The Boise reading was specifically against a city-wide [camping] ban, and it’s still open question on more specific parts,” said Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a critic of housing-first. “These are all meaty questions that will probably have to be decided by the Supreme Court.”

How cities are responding to tent encampments so far

Because encampments at this scale are a relatively new problem for so many cities, elected officials and nonprofit partners have largely been experimenting on the fly with how to address them, balancing a mix of political, financial, and legal pressures, along with a practical shortage of affordable housing. Recommended practices continue to evolve as leaders pilot new models, as activists demand more compassionate standards, and as researchers study the consequences of past sweeps.

City responses have typically fallen into four broad categories, ranging from quickly “sweeping” the tents and providing no services to the unsheltered living there, to formally permitting people to camp out, and even providing bathrooms, areas to prepare food, and other social services. HUD research published in 2020 found the most common strategy cities have embraced was encampment “clearance and closure with support” — meaning deploying trained outreach workers to provide people with weeks of notice that their encampment would be shutting down, working to connect them with housing and services, and making longer-term storage of their belongings available.

This has worked fairly well in some communities, but caseworkers and housing are often unavailable, and new units or shelter beds cannot simply be erected quickly.

Earlier studies have suggested that clearance with no support, or a so-called “tough love” approach, does little to drive people to shelters or mitigate the broader problem of encampments. Typically the homeless often just pick up and relocate somewhere else nearby. “Clearance with little or no support may actually reduce the likelihood that people will seek shelter because it erodes trust and creates an adversarial relationship between people experiencing homelessness and law enforcement or outreach workers,” a HUD report published in 2019 concluded.

Individuals forced out of encampments often report losing their medication, walkers, and other items that affect their physical and mental health. Critics of sweeps point to the risks they pose to individuals’ health, as well as the cost to local city budgets. (Federal homeless dollars cannot be used on tent encampments.)

Amid growing community frustration, some leaders have started to pursue tougher measures on encampments, including ramping up criminal penalties on people pitching tents on public land. In at least half a dozen states, lawmakers have pushed bills based on templates from the Cicero Institute, an Austin-based think tank opposed to housing-first. The bills propose to permanently ban tent encampments and penalize cities that permit them.

Texas became the first state to pass a version of Cicero’s template legislation in 2021, and lawmakers say it was a direct response to Austin’s city council lifting its homeless encampment ban in 2019. (Austin’s encampment ban returned in 2021, after 57 percent of Austin residents voted for its reinstatement.)

In 2022, Tennessee became the first state to pass a bill that would make camping on local public land — like parks — a felony. Missouri likewise passed a Cicero-inspired law last year, that would criminalize sleeping on state-owned land. Missouri’s law allows the state’s attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the ban.

This year lawmakers in Georgia and Arizona are debating passage of similar bills. Arizona’s was written by attorneys at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that has also filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs suing Phoenix officials for “the Zone” encampment.

While Republican lawmakers are advancing these bills on the state level, leaders in more liberal cities have also started to look for new tent-clearing solutions, including ones they previously would not have entertained.

In Portland, Oregon, for example, lawmakers voted in November to create several large sanctioned campsites for homeless individuals, and ban the more than 700 other encampments spread across the city. Sixty-eight percent of Portland voters support the idea, according to a poll commissioned by the Portland Business Alliance. In Sacramento, leaders recently approved new penalties for camping on sidewalks, and banned encampments near schools and daycares.

In San Francisco, leaders pioneered a model known as “navigation centers” — places unhoused people can go with fewer barriers to entry than traditional shelters. At the indoor navigation centers, individuals can connect with intensive case management and receive help with finding permanent housing. These centers have been deemed relatively successful even though the city hasn’t been able to stop the flow of more people into homelessness.

More than a dozen other liberal cities have since adopted San Francisco’s navigation center model, including Seattle and Houston. Supporters of these low-barrier spaces see them as very different from the sanctioned camping sites backed by the Cicero Institute, and a more welcoming option for many people wary of traditional shelters.

On her first day in office in December, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a city emergency over homelessness, announcing a new plan to tackle encampments. The plan essentially consists of creating navigation centers to close encampments and connect homeless individuals with services and housing. But the challenge will be actually finding enough housing. Last year LA had nearly 42,000 people living on the streets, mixed with a growing housing affordability crisis.

Practically speaking, city officials recognize they are also fighting for their own careers. Homelessness, and how to handle it, has become one of the most salient political issues in recent elections in liberal cities like Portland, San Diego, Seattle, and Austin. Republicans have cast Democrats as incompetent and feckless when it comes to addressing the crisis. The public, across the political spectrum, wants elected officials to take some sort of action.

Marc Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Houston’s mayor on homeless initiatives, said when his city received its federal pandemic aid, they knew they wanted to launch a more proactive response to tent encampments. “We’re interested in solving it, not managing it,” he said. “There is an opportunity for homeless systems and providers to demonstrate to the public that housing-first is the answer to encampments.”

The big, neglected problem that should be Biden’s top priority

Originally published in on March 1, 2023.

For decades, the US has built fewer homes than it needs — a trend that has led to soaring rent and home prices, hurt economic growth, and hampered attempts to address the climate crisis.

Just how much more housing the US should have is debatable. But the estimates are unanimous that the country needs a lot more — 1.5 million units, or 3.8 million, or even 5.5 million — to ensure affordable housing for everyone. Low-income housing advocates estimate that America has a shortage of 7 million affordable rental units for those living in poverty; another group found nearly 11 million households spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent.

Last May, the White House announced the Housing Supply Action Plan, a grab bag of ideas that the Biden administration called “the most comprehensive all of government effort to close the housing supply shortfall in history.”

But 10 months later, there has been minimal progress, and higher interest rates have led to an overall slowdown in construction. The federal government did pass significant new investments in climate and infrastructure but largely failed to authorize new spending to expand the supply of housing.

There was real home-building progress in 2022 — more multifamily projects were started than in any year since 1986 — and the Biden administration argues its economic stimulus policies helped fueled some of that demand.

Yet most of those projects had been in the works for a long time. And although the Biden administration has invested more time and resources into the housing supply issue than its two most recent predecessors, it’s hard to claim the issue has stayed at the top of the president’s agenda. Biden has not pushed hard for expanding housing supply as a legislative priority and has not spent much time talking about building more homes. The housing crisis was barely mentioned in his recent State of the Union address.

“Both to the credit and detriment of this administration, they just have a lot of priorities,” said Ben Metcalf of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, who is a former Obama administration HUD official.

Developers say they’ve been begging the Biden administration to take more steps to reduce the cost of construction. Advocates for looser zoning rules say there is more the White House could do to clearly communicate what’s driving the crisis.

In the weeks leading up to the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in late December, the Biden administration made clear its top legislative priorities were new money for Ukraine, Covid-19, and disaster relief. Biden officials defend their broad approach and say housing supply remains a focus that will be reflected in their soon-to-be-released budget proposal. But given how often officials cite resource constraints as a limiting factor, their ever-widening agenda creates obvious challenges.

Many pressing issues don’t receive much attention from the president. But among policy analysts, there’s a growing consensus that America’s housing shortage is the primary issue exacerbating many of the other big problems the country faces — from the climate crisis and homelessness to economic inequality and chronic illness. Unlike many other policy crises, too, housing is one that’s not yet totally polarized yet along partisan lines. The White House has gestured to agreeing with this analysis, but at least so far, it hasn’t met the crisis with proportionate urgency.

The feds’ tools against NIMBYism, briefly explained

Housing prices keep rising primarily because there’s not enough housing to go around. A top culprit for this scarcity is local zoning laws that bar new construction and empower homeowners who gain financially from restricting housing supply to decide whether or not to make room for more neighbors.

It’s illegal to build apartments on more than 70 percent of residential land in virtually every major US city. Other regulatory barriers, like minimum parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, and height limits, also make it harder to fit more people onto the available land. The popular shorthand for these restrictions is NIMBYism — short for “not in my backyard.”

Experts praised the Biden administration for elevating zoning issues in its plan released last May because many people don’t grasp, or don’t believe, that these policies and the fundamental imbalance between housing supply and demand fuel the affordability crisis.

“Getting the president to talk about housing and keeping up a consistent drum beat about supply and these land use barriers is among the most important things the White House could be doing,” said Andy Winkler, the housing director at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Biden administration’s plan proposes deploying new financing tools to build and preserve housing, to improve existing federal financing models, and to offer incentives for communities to reduce their housing development barriers.

In October, the White House announced progress on executing its plan, and it has taken some steps — like finalizing a rule to make it easier to build mixed-income projects, and extending several tax credit deadlines so that projects delayed by the pandemic could continue.

These changes are welcome, but in practical terms, they’re modest. Without an increase in federal funding, the administration’s impact on total housing supply will be limited.

Part of the challenge is that building new housing is an area where local governments hold immense power, and cities fiercely defend their right to dictate what kind of housing should exist. Land use policy has also historically been a state responsibility. As a result, federal lawmakers generally opt for strategies that encourage localities to make change, rather than strip money from those that don’t.

In his first year in office, Biden proposed a grant program to reward communities that loosened their zoning rules. That idea became the $1.75 billion Unlocking Possibilities program, which was included in the House’s Build Back Better bill but cut from the Senate’s version.

In 2022, the Biden administration tried again, proposing a new $10 billion grant program to reward states and localities that remove barriers to housing development. The omnibus spending package Congress passed in December did include its first competitive grant program aimed at zoning reform, dubbed a “YIMBY” grant — an acronym that stands for “yes in my backyard.” But it was for just $85 million, less than 1 percent of what Biden asked for.

“It’s not a meaningful amount of money; it’s a symbolic amount,” said Eric Kober, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, of the new grant program. Kober is skeptical that the federal government can successfully nudge cities and states to take action on zoning. “Local governments often don’t understand the effects of their own land-use policies, and those that do can feign compliance while quietly undermining housing construction,” he wrote last year in a critical assessment of Biden’s housing plan.

The concern is warranted. One aspect of Biden’s plan that received early attention is a proposal to use both federal housing and transportation dollars to incentivize zoning reforms. In theory that’s a great idea: investments in new public transit are less useful if few people can actually live nearby the subsidized trains and subways.

But when the Transportation Department announced recipients of $2.2 billion in new competitive grants in August, few, if any of the 166 projects were from applicants that embraced zoning reforms. Some went to notorious NIMBY cities, like San Francisco. The White House claims two recipients — in Colorado and Minnesota — were chosen in part due to their adoption of land use policies to promote housing density.

“That doesn’t strike me as a systematic approach to encouraging future reform,” said Emily Hamilton, the director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center. “There certainly doesn’t seem to be any accountability that these zoning reforms are actually going to build more housing.”

The Transportation Department declined to comment on these criticisms but pointed to its rating rubric, which ranks applicants higher if they “coordinate and integrate land use, affordable housing, and transportation planning.” A spokesperson said they also recently announced that transit-oriented development projects are now eligible to receive better financing, that they have received “dozens” of inquiries so far, and they expect several projects will benefit from that this year.

Another Biden initiative was to allow states to use federal pandemic funds to address the housing shortage. A few, like Illinois, seized this opportunity. Allison Clements, of the Illinois Housing Council, said her state committed more than $339 million in American Rescue Plan funds to create affordable housing and fight homelessness.

But most states had no interest in leveraging the funds for housing production, and at the local level there’s often rarely the capacity to manage those kinds of projects, even if there was interest. So while it was a welcome idea, in practical terms it couldn’t support much new housing overall.

I asked HUD if, beyond the new $85 million YIMBY grant, it was looking to incorporate zoning into any of its other large grants. For example, while HUD cannot condition funding on zoning reforms without congressional approval, it does ask all recipients of its $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program to submit plans identifying barriers to housing development. HUD could specifically mention zoning here.

A HUD official said they don’t have plans to do that, but believe that combined with Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing work, “many communities will come to the conclusion that addressing zoning and land use reform, if it is exclusionary, is part of that.”

To move the needle, Hamilton of the Mercatus Center thinks Congress needs to create a new grant program that specifically awards jurisdictions based on housing market outcomes — like how much housing is actually built and how much it costs. A more heavy-handed federal approach, however, could fuel local backlash and potentially polarize the housing supply issues.

“It’s definitely a risk,” Hamilton said when asked about the idea’s political viability. “It would not be good for housing policy to become a left or right-coded issue.” But she emphasized there has been conservative interest in deregulating zoning before.

The federal government is not treating housing construction as urgent

To make a dent on housing supply, the Biden administration will need to invest more political capital in pushing for funding and continue to prioritize barriers to both subsidized and market-rate housing.

While Biden’s team can tout high rates of multifamily housing construction in 2022, completions have lagged, and analysts are bracing for a construction slowdown now from higher interest rates. Single-family home starts declined in 2022 for the first time for this reason, and the home-builder industry predicts both single-family and multifamily construction will decline this year.

Some of the biggest pieces of the administration’s plan are bills that Congress failed to pass last year, but that the Biden administration also failed to really lobby for. Those bills would have subsidized the preservation and repair of existing affordable homes, and offered more money for low-income rental construction.

The housing shortage has animated conservative think tanks, as well as some Republicans in Congress, like Indiana Sen. Todd Young. Winkler said he and his colleagues are encouraging the administration to work more proactively with Republicans this year. “They haven’t really yet engaged in those bipartisan conversations,” he said. In October, the Bipartisan Policy Center outlined a series of housing bills it believes could unite both parties.

“This plan is a departure from the Build Back Better Act — which recognized the severity of the nation’s housing affordability crisis but did not embrace a politically feasible, bipartisan agenda to address it,” Winkler’s team wrote.

One recurring critique was that the Biden administration has not been as aggressive in working to help the private sector build more homes.

For example, housing industry groups have been lobbying HUD to raise its large loan limits, which developers say could help them bring about anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 new additional homes annually and does not require congressional approval. The federal housing agency sets limits to mitigate lending risk, but with rising interest rates, builders are finding it harder to make financing deals possible under the status quo.

“There’s been a bias at HUD toward working with the nonprofit community, and we’ve been trying to get them to be more open to working with private sector partners,” said Bill Killmer, a lobbyist with the Mortgage Bankers Association. A HUD spokesperson said they’re reviewing their loan limits.

Builders have also been pressing the Biden administration to ease up on certain tariffs to reduce the cost of home construction. Last April, more than 10,000 members of the National Association of Home Builders urged the administration to suspend taxes on Canadian softwood lumber. But the trade dispute continues, and the US actually increased tariffs on Canadian timber companies in January. Lumber cost has come down recently, but builders say that’s just because construction is down.

“The Biden administration has done nothing to make lumber cheaper, and in fact, you could argue they are making it more expensive, due to overzealous environmental regulation that’s made it impossible in some cases to harvest in our own national forests,” said Jerry Howard, CEO of the National Association of Home Builders. Howard credited Biden’s team for reducing the cost of manufacturing chips but lamented that “the administration is focusing all of its efforts on very low-income housing.”

Kober, of the Manhattan Institute, argued Biden has embraced protectionist trade policies to help his reelection chances, even if it raises the price of housing construction and feeds into inflation. He criticized the Buy America rules included in recent federal legislation, arguing they will make building housing more expensive.

Buy America rules do not apply to market-rate housing or housing built with the low-income housing tax credit, but affordable housing advocates have expressed concern with how these new rules could impact existing subsidized programs.

A White House spokesperson defended the rules, saying “using American-made materials will help make supply chains more resilient and can reduce costly delays that slow down projects.”

Advocates remain cautiously hopeful about the potential for increased production of manufactured housing, which are homes largely assembled in factories. These houses are far less expensive to produce at scale than conventional “site-built” housing, and included in the federal omnibus bill was a new $225 million grant program for this sector.

But current federal policies discourage lenders from offering accessible financing terms to buyers of manufactured homes, and advocates like Jim Gray, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, have been urging Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to offer less expensive products.

“It has been an uphill battle,” Gray admitted. The Biden housing supply plan talked about promoting manufactured housing, and HUD has been focused on research in the area and working to improve relevant loans, but progress has been slow so far.

Yet there’s also been no real push to treat factory-made housing as an urgent federal investment priority like leaders have, say, electric cars or solar energy.

“The federal government could be saying, ‘Hey, we have an investor role to play in building American factories for entry-level housing,’ but instead they talk mostly about the annual HUD festival [on innovative housing models] they host,” said Metcalf. “That’s cool, but that’s not the focus we’ve brought to bear for other industries.”

Tackling the housing supply crisis will require big, industrial-level creativity on a scale comparable to what the administration brought to legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. So far, on housing, that’s been missing. Winkler says he thinks the Biden administration has made “a good-faith effort to do what they can administratively, but without the substantial resources they had wanted to get in the reconciliation plan, their hands are somewhat tied.”

Many of the provisions of the administration’s plan “align with our own priorities,” he said, but “on the whole, that cannot in and of itself be transformational.”

America’s afternoon afterthought

Originally published in Vox on February 21, 2023.

The after-school registration date — May 9, 2022 — was long marked on Liz Baltaro’s calendar. A family medicine doctor in Durham, North Carolina, she felt acute pressure to land spots for her twin boys, then 7 years old, in their school district’s after-school program. Baltaro and her husband Ben have no parents or other relatives living nearby and no option to work remotely. Elementary school ends in the early afternoon, but she can’t leave her job until after 5 pm.

That day, Baltaro woke up before sunrise and started refreshing her phone. When applications finally opened roughly three hours later, she signed up, in between seeing patients. Reading the confirmation email at 9:17 am, she breathed a sigh of relief.

More than two months later, with the first day of school rapidly approaching, Baltaro received a strange, vague email, listing strategies Durham Public Schools was taking to “recruit and hire staff” and “accommodate waitlisted students.” She called the district and learned her kids — along with 720 other children — had been waitlisted. Amid a headline-making national labor shortage, the district needed to hire over 60 new employees to cover the demand.

“Our choices are either after-care or my husband forfeits his job, which really isn’t tenable for us,” Baltaro said. “Finding backup nannies and child care is very difficult — that market has changed. Even if you can afford hiring someone, you can’t find someone easily; fewer people are working.”

The after-school crisis her family found themselves in is not limited to one city or state. For working parents, the hours between the end of the school day and the end of the traditional workday leave a gap millions struggle to fill. Thousands of school districts offer no after-school options at all, and some communities have just a single nonprofit or church program available.

This year, filling that gap got even harder. Fewer spots and longer after-school waitlists have been reported all over the country, and more companies are rolling back the remote flexibilities they offered workers during the pandemic. The result is a difficult climate for parents who muddled exhaustedly through Covid school closures and hoped they’d find some stability when their kids finally headed back to their classrooms.

In Durham, parents demanded answers. School district administrators apologized for the inconvenience and cited the nationwide shortage of applicants, as large chain employers like Target, Starbucks, and Walmart continued to raise their wages and offered better benefits. (Starting wages for after-school workers in Durham was $16 an hour.)

But Durham had made other decisions that contributed to the mess. That summer, officials voted to delay start times for high schoolers and begin all elementary schools earlier, trying to make school buses more efficient and provide high schoolers with more time to sleep. Practically, though, it meant hundreds more kids ages 10 and under would be finishing school at 2:15 pm.

While parents recognized the tough hiring market, many felt frustrated by what seemed like a lack of leadership. Some of these problems, like increased demand from the schedule change, were foreseeable. But after-school child care so often remains an afterthought, leaving parents — in Durham and across the country — routinely scrambling.

About 8 million kids are enrolled in after-school programs today, but that’s less than a quarter of total demand, according to the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance. Research it led in early 2020, just before the pandemic, found that nearly 25 million more children would be enrolled in an after-school program if one were available to them, up from 19 million in 2014. The top-cited barrier to enrollment was money: 57 percent of parents reported that programs were too expensive. While about a quarter of parents pay nothing for after-school programs, of the 77 percent who do pay, the average cost per child stands at $100 per week.

Despite the unmet demand, there has been little public investment in after-school care, and most programs are financed through parent fees. The federal government allocated just $1.3 billion in after-school funding in 2022, and each year the vast majority of requests for federal grants are deniedState and local governments subsidize little on top. The one exception is California, which for years has spent more on after-school than all 49 states combined.

For kids wrestling with social isolation, steep mental health challenges, and historic declines in test scores, the dearth of post-pandemic after-school options has been a bitter pill to swallow. Researchers have long known that trauma and adversity can harm youth development, but studies show these neurological effects can be mitigated by caring relationships and safe environments. After-school programs are linked to other positive outcomes, including higher grades, school attendance, and graduation rates. One study found participating in after-school activities for at least two days per week was related to a lower likelihood of alcohol use, marijuana use, and skipping school. Other research found after-school programs associated with a lower likelihood of juvenile crime, which makes sense since juvenile crime peaks during the hours of 2-6 pm.

The contemporary after-school crisis is largely driven by indifference and inertia. Unlike traditional public schooling, there’s no national consensus on who’s responsible for after-school care. Where kids are supposed to go while it’s still the middle of the workday, after the school day ends, is left to busy, overwhelmed parents to figure out.

Indeed, back in Durham, families have had to just muddle through. Over the summer, Baltaro’s husband, Ben, found three days a week available at their local YMCA’s after-school program, which was more expensive than the school district option they had hoped for. The other two days, he negotiated with his boss to cut his hours so he could watch his kids.

Tracey Super-Edwards, the director of community education at Durham Public Schools, told me that by late November, the district had reduced their after-school waitlist to about 400 students, and had reduced their staff vacancies from 61 to nine. “We’re very proud of that,” she said, stressing they did this all without raising rates for families, despite inflation. Around that same time, Ben answered a robocall and learned district slots had opened up for his twins.

They took the offer but are already feeling anxious about next year, when their youngest child ages out of day care and the whole process starts anew.

“Our culture in America really encourages working, but we are not prioritizing working parents’ schedules,” said Baltaro. “Aftercare is a necessity if you work 40 hours a week.”

Hiring for seasonal part-time jobs always takes scrappy effort, but after-school program directors say recruiting and retaining workers for these jobs — which pay as low as minimum wage, average four hours per day, and generally provide no benefits — has gotten much harder since the pandemic.

national survey of providers conducted by Edge Research at the end of 2021 found half of respondents were “extremely concerned” about hiring staff and staffing shortages. Another national survey led in the summer of 2022 by the EdWeek Research Center found similar results: Recruiting and retaining staff were by far the top challenges school principals and after-school leaders reported. Many say the labor pool that programs used to rely on evaporated during the Covid-19 pandemic and hasn’t returned.

“We have people who sign up for interviews and we call them and they never show up and we never hear from them again,” said Daniela Grigioni, the executive director of After-School All-Stars in Washington, DC. “They block us, ghost us, we don’t know what happened. We have people starting and quitting two weeks later because they find something else. It’s very difficult.”

The most common strategy providers say they’re using to attract new workers is raising pay: Over half of respondents told Edge Research they’ve increased wages, and 30 percent told Edweek Research Center the same. Other strategies include offering workers free child care, sign-on bonuses, more professional development, and additional paid time off. Still, there are often no bites to the job postings, even with these new incentives.

Jenna Andrews, the program director at Beyond the Bell, a popular network of 25 after-school programs in the Sioux City metropolitan area, has felt the intense strain of hiring over the last year.

It’s her 10th year leading the program and it’s never been this difficult to find qualified staff, Andrews says, as we sit together on a cold Monday afternoon in January.

The slow trickle of applications and the rapid turnover of hires has meant much longer waitlists for parents, since Beyond the Bell is regulated by a strict 1:15 staff-to-student ratio. By late November, they were serving about 900 kids, down from a pre-pandemic size of 1,200.

To compete for staff, Beyond the Bell has used federal pandemic aid to raise their wages twice over the last year — now up to $13 or $15 an hour, depending on the position. They’ve also started to offer retention bonuses, attendance-based bonuses, and a bonus for those new hires who complete their on-board training faster. Advertising is also a new expense: Beyond the Bell started running ads on the internet and local TV when their more reliable pool of college students in the area didn’t materialize.

“I would say it’s been pretty disheartening because we’ve tried to come up with all these things we think would work and it continues to not,” said Andrews, as we watched kids play red rover in the gym at Bryant Elementary School, one of Beyond the Bell’s sites in Sioux City. “Maybe it motivates some people for a little but then it just fizzles out.” Bryant Elementary has a waitlist of 20 students and lost a staff member who quit around Christmas. Network-wide, Andrews said they’ve gotten their waitlist down to 130.

“We’ve seen a few staff that leave to go to other jobs that can pay them more, or give them additional hours at a higher rate, and I don’t blame them at all,” added Stacia Hough, who works with Andrews in management. “It just stinks because they were really, really wonderful with the children.”

The bustling after-school program at Prescott Elementary school in Oakland, California, offers a vision for what a future of adequately funded after-school programs could look like.

California is the only state in the nation that has taken it upon itself to invest robustly in after-school care. For two decades, it has spent more than all 49 other states combined, and is marching forward to build a universal after-school system for all children.

While most after-school programs nationwide have no public money, Prescott benefits from three different public funding sources: two grants from the California legislature, plus Oakland grant money. The result has been more flexible program hours for parents, more competitive wages for workers, and enhanced activities for kids, ranging from robotics and dance lessons to culinary classes and tutoring.

Earlier this year, an infusion of new after-school state funding sent over $36 million to the Oakland Unified School District. As a result, Prescott site coordinator Pendeka Nimmer was able to raise starting wages for her after-school staff, from $17.50 an hour pre-pandemic to as high as $22 per hour. Oakland public schools also used federal academic recovery aid to help some after-school staff become newly full-time and eligible for benefits.

The competitive wages, Nimmer says, allowed them to get the word out and recruit better applicants. “Just coming out of Covid, we were getting a lot of interviews that were falling through and I felt like a lot of people were just doing the hiring process to keep their unemployment [benefits] going,” she said. Eighty students are currently enrolled in Prescott’s program, a large jump from years past.

“We’re able to fund after-school programs at every single school for the first time, and expand those programs to include 3- and 4-year-olds, all the way up to high school,” said Martha Peña, the after-school coordinator for Oakland public schools. The funds have also allowed Oakland to launch a new elementary school sports program every Saturday, where kids can play organized soccer, baseball, and other games for free — a rare alternative to pay-to-play youth sports leagues.

“I just signed an invoice for mariachi equipment!” exclaimed Peña with pride. “And we’re in conversations to start a marching band. With this money, we can really provide kids now with what they deserve.”

Officials in California now refer to after-school as “expanded learning” — a category that includes before-school programming as well as summer school.

“We’re not child care — which is important and has a critical role, but we’re beyond care,” said Heather Williams, the policy and outreach lead for the California AfterSchool Network, a statewide advocacy group. “The flip side is we’re not extended class time, either. Expanded learning is something different and intentional.”

California’s history with publicly funded after-school programs stretches back three decades, when youth advocates in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Diego began pressuring state lawmakers to take action. Their organizing eventually culminated in $50 million budgeted for after-school programming in 1997. Within five years, lawmakers bumped that up to $122 million.

Investments soared further thanks to Proposition 49, a successful 2002 ballot measure sponsored and largely funded by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would go on to serve as California’s governor. Ultimately, that aid, coupled with more limited federal after-school funds, led to a seven-fold increase in the number of schools providing publicly subsidized expanded learning in California, serving more than 900,000 students each year. But inflation and multiple increases in the state’s minimum wage put a strain on existing after-school programs, and upward of 40 percent of districts still offered no after-school option at all.

Then, in 2021, thanks to infusions of federal Covid-19 money and an unexpected budget surplus, California lawmakers announced a massive $5 billion increase to their after-school spending. It’s that increase that has proved to be such a game changer recently in Oakland.

“I had no idea that was coming, I learned about the expansion just like everyone else, watching the news and Newsom’s press conference,” Michael Funk, the top state official overseeing California’s expanded learning programs told me, as we sat together in his Sacramento office. “And so I had to start that afternoon thinking, ‘Holy shit, how am I gonna do this?’”

All told, California now budgets a little over $5 billion annually on before-school, after-school, and summer learning.

Funk is an unlikely government bureaucrat; originally an ordained minister, he left his church in the early 1990s to help launch an after-school program in San Francisco and advocate for statewide funding. In 2012, he was tapped to lead a new Afterschool Division at the state education department. Today, he manages a team of 45 employees and counts roughly 25 other leaders across the state — including Williams at the California Afterschool Network — working with him toward the vision of universal after-school.

Still, there are challenges. Not all school districts in California have been as eager as Oakland Unified to accept the new state funds for expanded learning; for some superintendents overwhelmed with other responsibilities, erecting new after-school programs effectively from scratch felt like more trouble than it’s worth. Funk has been working to persuade more districts that this opportunity is something they can handle.

And even with California’s unique political commitment and robust funding, staffing after-school programs remains tough in many communities, as many programs still pay at or just above minimum wage (which increased statewide in 2023 to $15.50 an hour.)

“For part-time after-school staff, if you’re [paying] under $20 an hour, it’s going to be hard for you to hire in California,” said Williams. “The number I hear a lot is that $20 for starting part-time is really the threshold that’s needed.”

report published in November examining the 20 years since Prop 49’s passage emphasized that livable wages and benefits are key to expanded learning and essential to growing the state’s potential workforce, which is far more demographically representative of California’s youth than the state’s K-12 teachers. After-school workers are also more likely to speak the primary language spoken by their students and live in their communities.

Funk stressed to me that he doesn’t see after-school jobs ever being able to compete with big retailers on a dollar-for-dollar basis. “One of the messages I’ve been trying to really drive home is that if we’re trying to recruit people to the workforce by competing with Starbucks … is do you want to make a difference? Do you want to really support and change the lives of young people? Do you want to get into a job that could be the entry point for a career in education?”

Still, plenty of after-school advocates counter that the field cannot abandon the goal of competitive wages in favor of hoping for a virtuous do-gooder workforce motivated primarily by passion. That’s a recipe, they say, for waitlists, staff shortages, and instability.

In November, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona traveled to California to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Proposition 49. “I want to see a commitment at all levels — at the state, at the local level, to commit to after-school programs like I saw here today,” he said at the event.

But outside of California, expanding public funding for after-school programs has been slow. Last year Congress authorized a $30 million increase to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, the only major source of federal funding for after-school care, and Biden proposed a modest $21 million bump to it in his 2023 budget.

Advocates have been rallying for a $500 million federal increase so that communities can actually serve the 24.6 million children who would likely attend if programs were available.

Biden, for his part, has put some pressure on his education department. Last summer, he urged states to use their federal pandemic funds to support after-school and summer learning, prompting the first-ever federal education department campaign to promote those initiatives.

When I asked Cardona about the dearth of public funding for after-school, he stressed the need to “be creative” and look to partnerships with community-based organizations. “I know states are looking at mental health supports, and you know what provides mental health?” he asked. “Being part of a theater group, or a club where they feel connected to others.”

Yes, after-school is an academic tool, he added, but it’s also a safety tool. “We need to be thinking about it not only in terms of education funding but also municipal and state funding to reduce crime,” he said.

Public funding for after-school — particularly on the local level — sometimes runs into conflict with teacher unions, which would rather see additional money spent on the traditional school day, or at least go to district employees rather than after-school workers employed by nonprofit partners. “If I were talking to a labor union leader here at this table, I would stress that this is something that actually does not put [an] undue burden on the teachers and classified staff of your school,” said Jeff Davis, head of the California AfterSchool Network. “It actually enhances what they’re able to do, and you’re not only strengthening your school, your family services, but also your community at large.”

Some leaders say they’ve embraced a glass-half-full perspective regarding the future. “I’ve been in this for 19 years, and in that time funding has only gone up,” said Ben Paul, the president and CEO of After-School All-Stars, which was originally founded by Schwarzenneger in 1992. Still, Paul acknowledged it has been hard on the local and state level to get the investment communities need because there are so many other interest groups competing for resources.

Vermont is the closest to following in California’s footsteps. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has pushed to accommodate the 26,000 children who can’t currently get into after-school programs in the state, pitching it as a way to help Vermont’s labor force by aligning it with school schedules. Vermont’s state health commissioner has hailed after-school as a proven way to prevent substance misuse among kids. The state formed a task force and in 2021 published a final report about how to erect a universal program.

A few other politicians have leaned into the idea of after-school. In her most recent budget proposal, Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for lawmakers to expand state funding for before- and after-school by $50 million to help kids and parents. Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged this year to “build the best, most robust, free before-and-after-school program in the nation.”

Still, most other states continue to drag their feet. The Mott Foundation, a Michigan-based philanthropy, has issued some $350 million in grants over the last few decades to support after-school expansion, and currently convenes a 50-state network to help further that goal. “We’re working on it!” Jodi Grant, of the Afterschool Alliance, told me when I pressed about public funding.

Funk, the California education department official, said in his view it all comes down to advocacy and “leading with love” for kids and families. “That’s not fluffy stuff, it’s actually very hard work,” he said. “People could come up with all types of reasons for why they can’t do what we do in California. But we didn’t have any money when we first started.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Stop treating unemployment as a necessary evil to curb inflation

Originally published in Vox on February 7, 2023.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ new jobs report, released on Friday, was a surprise to nearly all economic analysts. The unemployment rate fell to 3.4 percent — its lowest level since 1969 — and 517,000 new jobs were added in January across a wide range of industries. That was more than double the 190,000 new jobs Wall Street analysts had predicted we’d see.

Given mounting fears that to combat inflation the Federal Reserve might push the country into a recession, experts described Friday’s report as definitely good news for the economy.

One outspoken voice was less surprised: Skanda Amarnath, the executive director of the upstart and influential advocacy group Employ America. For the past four years, Amarnath has been urging economic experts across the political spectrum to rethink their long-held assumptions that bucking inflation necessarily means raising unemployment. He has argued that the cure for inflation — higher unemployment — can be worse than the disease and that we should take the welfare benefits of keeping people in their jobs more seriously.

Senior policy reporter Rachel Cohen talked with Amarnath about the latest jobs report, what he thinks it means for workers and interest rate hikes going forward, and how the American Rescue Plan should be judged in 2023. Their conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Rachel Cohen

There’s a very influential economic theory dating back 65 years that says, basically, inflation rises as unemployment falls. This relationship — known as “the Phillips curve” — has been strongly embraced by experts, including at the Federal Reserve, but you’ve been an outspoken skeptic of it for a long time. So to start off, where did your skepticism originate?

Skanda Amarnath

A model is ultimately good if it can give you reliable explanations and forecasts over time. I worked in the private sector for four years at a hedge fund and had the luxury to look at a lot of macroeconomic data, both over history and across countries.

There was a point in time, in 2013201420152016, when the US unemployment rate was falling. As it went down, some people started to warn of the risk of more inflation. At the time, I was more sympathetic to this. But then we saw inflation not rise between 2015 and 2019, despite low unemployment. And I started to build a model that looked at other countries and trends over time to see how well unemployment actually reasonably predicts inflation or wage growth.

And the answer is it’s not great. Obviously, if you torture the data enough you can get it to tell you the story you want, but it’s pretty damning that the unemployment rate fell in a lot of comparable countries, like Germany, Canada, Australia, and those low rates did not translate into nominal wage growth or even real wage growth. Inflation and unemployment were just not so neatly tied together.

I’m not going to say there is zero relationship between the two, but I think the trade-offs are often miscast. It’s not the level of unemployment that matters. What probably matters more is the whether it’s going down or up really quickly.

Rachel Cohen

Today we’re arguably watching this Phillips curve theory collapse in real time as inflation falls in wages and prices at the same time that unemployment is also falling. How do you feel? Vindicated?

Skanda Amarnath

It would be cheap to say I’m feeling vindicated, but I will say we’ve at least showcased that there is a possibility that there are outcomes other than what the Phillips curve would suggest. I expect more bumps in the road, I leave room for noise, and I expect that people who are really fond of the Phillips curve will probably have some future opportunities to claim the Phillips curve is still correct. But if you thought mechanically that when wage growth is high and inflation is high, the only way these things go down is through higher unemployment — well you have to actually acknowledge now that maybe there is a wider set of possibilities.

Rachel Cohen

Why do you think there hasn’t been more curiosity about other possibilities?

Skanda Amarnath

I think there’s a tendency among some in certain older generations that we need to be, like, these cynical hard-nosed adults in the room who will acknowledge the harsh realities of the world. A lot of this is informed by their experiences in the 1970s, but there are examples besides the 1970s when inflation spiked and it came down without unemployment rising. I was jarred in 2022 to see some of the rhetoric change so rapidly, to hear people in op-ed after op-ed insist why we definitely need higher unemployment.

Rachel Cohen

There was a recent Washington Post story about the shortage of hospitality and care workers, who have left for more stable, higher-paying work. As a result, the Post estimated there are nearly 2 million vacant hospitality and leisure jobs. Is this a problem? And if so, what’s the solution?

Skanda Amarnath

Ultimately, we’d like people to have the opportunity to be employed if they want to be employed. And from a macroeconomic perspective, ideally, you want activities to be tied to enhancing productivity over time, meaning either making jobs better or finding ways to get more output out. So one interesting thing is that even as food services employment has lagged post-pandemic, real food services consumption has more than recovered.

Now, there are certain sectors that really are essential. You can make a good case for child care, for health care, even for the production of actual food and energy. I don’t want to denigrate any one particular sector, but some sectors are clearly less essential than others.

Rachel Cohen

If I’m hearing you correctly, making sure that everyone has good jobs who wants one should be a higher priority than making sure all restaurants have waiters or busboys.

Skanda Amarnath

Yeah, the idea that “no ‘help wanted’ sign should ever exist” is not to me a sign of a healthy economy. The story for much of 2021 was like, “Where have all the workers gone?” and the suggestion was that it must be that people don’t want to work. But in actuality, there were some sectors that were really eager to hire — Amazon expanding its warehousing staff probably did put pressure on other industries looking to hire. But competing sectoral demand for labor is just very different from saying people don’t want to work.

Rachel Cohen

Where do you think immigration falls into all this? It doesn’t seem like it’s being seriously considered as a solution to some of these identified labor shortages.

Skanda Amarnath

So there’s two levels. On the slightly more technical macroeconomic level, we did have a real curtailment of immigration during the pandemic that’s now normalizing. But on the political level, the politics are just very corrosive and one party is clearly against increased immigration. But I think a lot of interest groups — from organized labor to the Chamber of Commerce — would like to see more immigration. So on the stakeholder side, I think there’s an openness to it, but as long as the Republican Party remains firmly in the camp of “immigration is bad,” we won’t see much. That might change. I think on a longer-term horizon, it could be slightly more optimistic.

Rachel Cohen

What do you think this new jobs report means in practical terms for workers’ wages and bargaining power? We’re clearly not seeing a wage spiral.

Skanda Amarnath

So in terms of the blowout job gains, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that normalized to trend, or revised downward. But one takeaway I think that’s worth highlighting is that a factor driving January’s gains is a reflection of businesses hanging on to their workers. Companies typically let go of workers from December to January, but there does seem to be an additional willingness among employers to keep their workforce attached, to not treat employees like a liquid asset and rather as something more worth caring for and hanging on to. This could be a recognition among employers that it might not be in your interest to have such a volatile workforce as we saw in 2021 and 2022. A lot of businesses saw the negative effects of that.

I think that also leaves more room for productive relationships between workers and employers. I think there are businesses trying to see things differently than the norms of the past, and from the standpoint of worker bargaining power, that’s a good thing.

Rachel Cohen

Some commentators have said, “Well, the reason we’re not seeing a wage spiral now is because, unlike in the 1970s, organized labor is so weak.” Do you buy this theory?

Skanda Amarnath

The notion of 1970s inflation being driven by unionization has become something of a little potted history that everyone imports subconsciously but I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of. I think unions had more power in the ’60s than in the ’70s, and a lot of the things that people say — like, “Oh, unions got these cost-of-living increases, and that increased wages, and that blew everything apart” — I think when you look at the data a little more closely, that theory is not very compelling. I just don’t think it checks out. If you look at how the total amount of wages and salaries grew, it wasn’t like it had some consistent positive connection with inflation.

Rachel Cohen

The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates from near zero a year ago to more than 4.5 percent today, with the latest increase happening just last week. But one of the Fed’s justifications for doing so was that real wages were falling. That’s less of the case today as inflation declines. Should the Fed continue to raise interest rates?

Skanda Amarnath

A lot of people talked about real wages declining being a reason for the Fed to take inflation super seriously, and we were not one of those people. I think “real wages” have real flaws as representative indicators of outcomes.

For us, Federal Reserve policy to reduce inflation works, causally, through the labor market. We see that as something that can be reconcilable, but you need to put some guardrails around it or else you’ll have a lot of collateral damage just for the sake of inflation, even though inflation may be driven by a lot of other forces than the labor market.

Wage acceleration is still running pretty strong in historical terms. We want non-inflationary labor market progress, but we really don’t want to have labor market backsliding, which is what we’re most obsessed about right now. The Fed right now is aiming for something singularly consistent with recessionary outcomes, and worse outcomes than what they’re letting on.

Rachel Cohen

What does that mean, “They’re aiming for something worse than they’re letting on”?

Skanda Amarnath

So in December, the Fed released what’s known as its Summary of Economic Projections, which are essentially quarterly projections FOMC members have about macroeconomic policy. It’s sometimes mistaken as a strict economic forecast, but it’s not. They’re projections under each Fed member’s view about optimal policy and trade-offs. And a vast majority of the FOMC projected in this report that they expect the unemployment rate in 2023 to go up by a percentage point — to 4.6 percent. But when unemployment goes up in a year by a percentage point, that’s not the last we hear about it. Typically, it gets a lot worse from that point, and the Federal Reserve loses control to rein it in. They have a terrible track record of being able to raise the unemployment rate just a little bit.

Rachel Cohen

Employ America puts a premium on employment and job growth. Why do you think the economic policy establishment has put less of a premium on that?

Skanda Amarnath

On the first level, we take the welfare costs of unemployment very seriously. Most economists wouldn’t disagree that labor market outcomes, in terms of unemployment and wages, are pretty critical for people’s well-being.

That doesn’t mean inflation isn’t a real problem or can’t be a real problem. But economists really struggle with getting rigorous about asking, “What is the welfare cost to inflation?” If wage growth and inflation are roughly in the same ballpark, what is the specific reason to be cooling down that process?

Maybe it’s because Congress says we want to have more stability — but that’s a political reason, not an economic explanation. So what is the economic reason for making inflation the all-important, all-centering issue? I don’t think there’s a good answer to that. Most of the answers end up boiling down to, well, we need to get inflation down now so that we don’t need to get inflation down later with even more unemployment. And I don’t think that’s a very good answer. What’s the independent reason that inflation is bad?

Rachel Cohen

Many pundits have blamed Democrats and Joe Biden for their robust pandemic stimulus, saying the American Rescue Plan (ARP) was too big and contributed to inflation. What do you make of that critique?

Skanda Amarnath

From a welfare perspective, we think the pandemic response was worth it. The design could be improved in maybe some ways, that’s usually the case with big policy measures, but by and large the scapegoating of the American Rescue Plan for all inflationary pressures has not held up well over time.

I’m much happier with the fact that employment rates — on an age-adjusted basis — have largely recovered. If employment levels were depressed for the sake of lower inflation, then it would have probably been harder to bring people back to the labor market. We have seen an employment recovery of the kind we haven’t seen before. The counterfactual that maybe if you did less fiscal policy then you’d have less inflation, well, it also seems to me that the fiscal policy efforts helped to support more employment, and that counterfactual needs to be more seriously engaged by ARP critics.

What do we want police body cams to do?

Originally published in Vox on February 2, 2023.

Not even the Memphis police chief could dismiss the video footage of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols being fatally beaten by cops in early January. On the day before its public release, police chief Cerelyn Davis declared the attack “heinous, reckless and inhumane.”

Friday night, the rest of the country saw what she meant. Officials released four videos — three from officers’ body cameras and one from SkyCop surveillance footage — that showed Memphis police punching, kicking, and clubbing Nichols, who did not fight back. The videos showed Nichols crying out for his mom, captured a police officer saying, “I hope they stomp his ass,” and showed that it took over 25 minutes for him to receive medical attention. The Shelby County district attorney ultimately brought charges including murder, assault, and kidnapping against the five police responsible.

Memphis has nominally implemented police reforms over the past few years, including 2,000 body-worn cameras for police, which the city started rolling out in 2016.

Body cameras, which UK officers began experimenting with in 2005, took off rapidly in the United States in the 2010s, following several high-profile police shootings that garnered viral national attention from footage that citizens recorded on their cellphones. When a grand jury declined in 2014 to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Brown’s family asked the nation to join them “in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”

President Obama’s Justice Department accelerated the deployment of body-worn cameras with a $23 million pilot program, and his Task Force on 21st Century Policing highlighted police-worn body cameras as one potential tool for improving community trust, albeit a costly one that came with privacy trade-offs. The camera programs were broadly popular with the public, and with police officers.

By 2016, nearly half of US law enforcement agencies — including in Memphis — had started to implement body camera programs, and today seven states have laws requiring officers to wear them. Yet while body-worn cameras have represented a widely adopted reform, it’s hard to find much evidence that they’ve substantially improved community trust.

The escalation of police violence broadly has led some activists to lose faith in body cameras as a meaningful tool, particularly as deeper issues that afflict American policing remain unaddressed. Policies governing their use and access to footage also vary greatly, as does enforcement of those rules. So far, the best evidence we have suggests they have led to less use of force and provided more tools for holding rogue cops accountable — but, like most reforms, how they’re used matters.

What the empirical research tells us so far about police body cameras

Part of the confusion surrounding the question of whether police body cameras “work” stems from disagreements about what the technology was supposed to do in the first place.

Some activists hoped to see the cameras reduce or prevent police violence, bring more accountability for unethical officers, and boost community relations. By contrast, according to a 2018 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, just 34 percent of local police and sheriffs’ offices say they acquired body-worn cameras to reduce use of force, and only 57 percent said the goal was to improve community perceptions. The top reasons agencies cited (about 80 percent each) were to “improve officer safety, increase evidence quality, reduce civilian complaints, and reduce agency liability.”

Seventy-three percent said they hoped body cameras would improve accountability — though this figure includes officers looking to limit what they consider unfair complaints from the public, too.

A growing body of research has aimed to test whether police body cameras have delivered on these various objectives.

In the beginning, there were just a handful of studies, which made it difficult to draw any clear conclusions. One influential randomized controlled trial from 2012 on the Rialto, California, police department showed a 59 percent reduction in police use of force among officers wearing the cameras, and an 88 percent decline in citizens filing complaints. The Rialto department is relatively small, though, and researchers cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from their findings.

As the decade stretched on, more studies emerged that painted a blurrier picture. For example, a 2017 randomized controlled trial involving more than 2,000 police officers in Washington, DC, found officers who wore cameras used force at about the same rate as officers who did not. While the researchers concluded that using body cameras led to a 9 percent increase in use of force, the study’s confidence interval was large — meaning that the results actually showed anything ranging from a 12 percent reduction to a 30 percent increase.

A randomized controlled trial with the Milwaukee Police Department in 2018 found that police wearing body cameras conducted fewer stops and were less likely to receive citizen complaints, but used force no differently than their colleagues not wearing cameras. Meanwhile, a separate RCT conducted with the Las Vegas Police Department, also in 2018, found significant reductions in use of force among officers wearing cameras compared to those not wearing them.

In 2020, an influential meta-analysis that combined the top existing studies came to a careful conclusion, if a disappointing one for those who hoped at last for clarity: There “remains substantial uncertainty” about whether body cameras can reduce officer use of force, though the researchers acknowledged the variation in effects they observed “suggests there may be conditions in which [cameras] could be effective.” The meta-analysis also concluded that the body cameras “do not seem to affect other police and citizen behaviors in a consistent manner, including officers’ … arrest behaviors, dispatched calls for service, or assaults and resistance against police officers.”

While the meta-analysis concluded that body cameras can reduce citizen complaints, as researchers saw in Rialto and Milwaukee, the review emphasized that it’s not clear if that’s because police were behaving better or if citizens simply reported fewer concerns, perhaps because they assumed body camera footage would be sufficient for accountability. All this back-and-forth sparked many news stories that the research is mixed and no real conclusions can be drawn — although it’s rare on any policy question for studies to reach a single, unanimous conclusion.

However, in 2021, researchers got a bit closer to some clarity.

That year, economists with the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Council on Criminal Justice updated the 2020 meta-analysis with two more recent experiments they deemed high-quality. Adding the new data led them to conclude that, on average, police body cameras had reduced use of force in fatal and non-fatal encounters by nearly 10 percent, a significantly higher rate than what the other researchers in 2020 found, and they reached their newer estimate with a smaller confidence interval.

The researchers stressed that body cameras are clearly no magic solution, but said their findings provide firmer evidence to support the idea that the technology can meaningfully change policing outcomes, and are justified financially from a cost-benefit perspective. Still, more studies are needed to dig further into these questions, particularly to clarify what sorts of policies and enforcement mechanisms drive real success.

Body camera footage has helped lead to rare police convictions

Christopher Brown, a lawyer who has brought cases against police for excessive force, said body-worn camera footage has been essential for attorneys like him to get any justice in court.

In 2013, Wayne Jones, a 50-year-old Black man with schizophrenia, was tasered, beaten, and shot 22 times by police officers in Martinsburg, West Virginia. After Jones died, his family sued the city and police, but the case was dismissed three times, with a district court judge finding the officers were protected by a controversial legal shield for government officials known as qualified immunity.

Brown represented Jones’s family in appealing this lawsuit, and in 2020, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a powerful verdict, saying Jones’s case could proceed to trial. “Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives,” the Fourth Circuit judge wrote.

“Without the body cam footage, we simply would have lost that case,” Brown told me. “The officers all circled the wagon, saying that my client was fighting back, struggling, wouldn’t listen to commands. The video contradicts that, and shows he was not moving.” The family reached a $3.5 million settlement with Martinsburg following a seven-year legal fight.

Of the few convictions of officers that have occurred in recent years, nearly all involved body camera or surveillance footage.

In 2018, a police officer in Texas was convicted of killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, in a case where body cam footage that contradicted the officer’s narrative played an influential role. A year later, an officer in Chicago was convicted of murdering Laquan McDonald, after dash-cam video showed McDonald walking away from the officers, despite an officer previously claiming McDonald had approached him with a knife.

Body cam footage was used extensively during the 2021 trial of the Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, and in December 2022, two Washington, DC, officers were convicted of murdering Karon Hylton-Brown, following body camera footage released by the police department.

“Without footage, it’s nearly impossible to break the ‘blue wall,’” said Brown, referring to an unofficial code of silence police take to protect one another against brutality charges.

Yet only about 14 percent of fatal police shooting incidents since 2015 have had body camera footage available at all, according to a national database compiled by the Washington Post.

Footage also doesn’t always result in justice, and rarely even in chargesJust 21 police officers in the US were charged in 2021 with murder or manslaughter from an on-duty shooting. That’s a record high, according to an academic database that’s tracked such incidents since 2005, but each year police kill about 1,000 people nationwide.

Some racial justice advocates warn about the darker side of collecting body camera footage — as video evidence then used to prosecute civilians. A 2016 George Mason University study found that 92.6 percent of prosecutors’ offices nationally in jurisdictions where police wear body cameras have used that footage as evidence in cases against private citizens. The researchers also found prosecutors generally did not expect body-worn cameras would meaningfully increase trust between citizens and police.

Police body camera implementation matters a lot

Part of the confusion over the efficacy of body-worn cameras has stemmed from a wide range of police department policies, which can give officers immense discretion in when their cameras are actually capturing footage. There have also been countless reports of officers simply violating their department’s body camera policies, like turning off their cameras in situations when they should clearly be recording.

Sometimes this sparks tougher enforcement and diminished discretion in the future for officers. Sometimes it ends with no consequence at all.

Legitimate risks remain around surveillance, and around transparency regarding where the body camera footage is stored and how it might be shared with third parties. Other scandals include officers “acting and directing” with their body cameras. In 2017, the public learned Baltimore cops had manipulated their cameras to plant fake evidence against a man to arrest him. In Florida in 2014, police released body camera footage that seemed to corroborate their account of events, yet a surveillance camera from a nearby building showed video evidence that contradicted the police and their doctored footage.

Whether a camera program is effective at achieving its goals and viewed by the public as a credible tool, researchers are learning, can often depend on whether the technology is required to be turned on, whether individual officers can review the footage before giving their statements, and whether the people involved in an incident or the public can watch the videos in a timely manner.

Indeed, over the past decade, accessing recorded footage has been very difficult for individuals in some situations. In 2019, a civilian review watchdog said that the New York Police Department failed to provide body camera footage for police misconduct investigations in 40 percent of its requests. In Texas, the Dallas Morning News had to fight for three years to obtain body camera footage of the police officers who killed 32-year-old Tony Timpa in 2016.

The quick release of body camera footage in Memphis is unusual, and reflects what some experts are saying is a broader shift in how incidents of police violence are being handled.

Police departments have historically fought to keep damning footage private, and in cases where they have released videos, it’s often begrudgingly after months or years of legal wrangling. It took 13 months and a court order for Chicago to release the footage of a police officer firing 16 bullets at Laquan McDonald. In Memphis, too, it took more than two years before the public could see police body camera footage of the 2018 shooting of 25-year-old Martavious Banks.

But more elected officials now say police chiefs are recognizing that this kind of secrecy will only undermine their agency’s credibility and effectiveness. In other cases, local governments are stepping up to craft clearer rules around disclosure. The DC City Council, for example, passed a law during the pandemic standardizing rules for the local police department to release footage. Prior to that law, DC police would simply deny or ignore video requests.

With Nichols, unlike Banks, Memphis police voluntarily released the footage within three weeks of the incident. And Davis, the police chief, emphasized the importance of not letting the involved officers review the footage prior to giving their official statements — an acknowledgment that this can lead to doctored narratives. Some have asked, though, if the fact that all five officers charged are Black played a role in the stronger enforcement of policies.

Ben Crump, an attorney representing Nichols’s family, addressed this point while applauding the speedy release of the video. “We want to proclaim that this is the blueprint going forward for any time any officers, whether they be Black or white, will be held accountable,” Crump said. “No longer can you tell us we got to wait six months to a year.”

Your segregated town might finally be in trouble

Originally published in Vox on January 23, 2023.

For 55 years, the Fair Housing Act, the landmark civil rights law meant to address housing discrimination, has required communities to certify that they are working to reduce government-sponsored segregation. But for decades, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did little to ensure cities were actually following through.

A new regulation is meant to give that desegregation mandate some teeth. The Biden administration’s housing department proposed a new rule last week that would require virtually all communities across the US to create plans to address local housing discrimination or face a penalty, including the potential loss of billions of dollars in federal funding. Essentially, any city or county that accepts HUD grant money — large and small, rural, urban, and suburban — would have to comply.

Under the 284-page rule, known as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, communities would need to craft their plans with input from local stakeholders, and submit them to HUD for approval. If approved, communities would then need to provide annual updates on their progress, and individuals could file federal complaints if they feel their leaders are dragging their feet.

This newfound toughness from HUD — backed by enforcement mechanisms and credible threats of yanking needed funding — could finally spell an end to the federal government turning a blind eye toward housing segregation. But a previous attempt by the Obama administration to do the same was stymied when Donald Trump was elected, and it’s not yet clear if this second try will meet the same fate.

“We are done with communities that do not serve people,” Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge told reporters. “We are going to hold responsible those that we give resources to. We no longer as a federal government can continue to fail the very people we need to help.”

The Biden administration is seeking public comment on its rule over the next 60 days, with the intent to have a final version take effect later this year.

A coalition of three dozen housing and civil rights groups — including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the ACLU, UnidosUS, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — hailed the release of the rule, calling it “an important step toward creating more equitable and affordable housing opportunities and stronger, more viable neighborhoods.”

Huh, wait, haven’t we heard this song before? (Yep.)

“Affirmatively furthering fair housing” is a mouthful, but what it really means is that banning housing discrimination is not enough. Just as important, according to the late US senator from Minnesota and Fair Housing Act co-author Walter Mondale, is to replace segregated neighborhoods with “truly integrated and balanced living patterns.”

In other words, desegregating the country requires some proactive — or “affirmative” measures — like providing rides and counseling to those who might want to move from a low-income urban area to an affluent suburban one. It might require increasing the value of housing vouchers so that low-income recipients could cash them out in more expensive neighborhoods. It might require cities to steer new subsidized housing development into wealthier (and whiter) locales.

In 2008, a national commission on fair housing concluded that HUD requires “no evidence that anything is actually being done as a condition of funding,” and that municipalities that actively discriminate or fail to promote integration go unpunished. This conclusion was echoed by a Government Accountability Office report in 2010, which found that communities were failing to comply with federal fair housing mandates and that HUD was failing to enforce those rules.

So in 2015, the Obama administration released its own similar regulation, intended to affirmatively further fair housing. It was considered a long-awaited victory for civil rights — but faced a backlash from conservatives and some local governments. Stanley Kurtz of National Review called it “easily one of President Obama’s most radical initiatives.” Trump called the desegregation rule an attempt to “abolish the suburbs.” Ben Carson, who would go on to lead HUD under Trump, likewise claimed the AFFH rule was just another “mandated social-engineering schem[e].”

The Trump administration took several steps to weaken the rule, including releasing its own version, which civil rights groups blasted as weak and hollow. Shortly after taking office, Biden pledged to rescind Trump’s regulation and recommit to fully implementing the Fair Housing Act.

The Obama-era rule, while in effect only a short while, had some problems, too.

Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty Race and Research Action Council, a civil rights group, said it was “not strong enough” in some key ways, particularly when it came to providing opportunities for local advocates to appeal lackluster progress.

Tegeler also felt many communities were refusing to “confront their history of segregation head-on” and instead proposed in their fair housing plans only measures that would invest more significantly in high-poverty communities: “It’s supposed to be a both/and rule, but when you look at the plans, many of them were not balanced, and were doing very little in terms of setting goals around housing mobility and desegregation.”

Biden housing officials say they believe their proposed version includes important updates to make it easier for smaller communities to participate, and harder for leaders to skirt their duties.

The changes include making the required data analysis easier, so that jurisdictions would not need to hire outside consultants to get it done. They also include pledges for beefed-up technical assistance, more mechanisms for enforcement, and increased public transparency rules. Local governments would also be required to hold multiple community meetings, at different times of the day and in different locations, to incorporate feedback from a broader array of constituents.

“We are cognizant of the fact that public engagement is often done in a way that only turns out certain voices,” HUD’s Deputy General Counsel for Fair Housing Sasha Samberg-Champion told me. “We can’t expect working people can show up to a 3 pm meeting.”

Will this revision last?

Ultimately, though, what doomed the Obama-era rule wasn’t its omissions and practical difficulties — it was that it existed for so little time before the Trump administration crushed it. This meant that no community ever really had to change its behavior in lasting ways; desegregation, if we’re serious about it, would require sustained commitment over years. If Republicans take back the White House in 2024 or 2028, will this new rule meet the same fate?

HUD declined to comment when I asked them this. But it’s clear federal housing officials were at least thinking about the risk of legal ping-pong when they crafted their new rule, because they designed it without a separate enforcement tool that had accompanied the Obama-era regulation. To stymie Obama’s rule while still technically leaving it on the books, Trump officials scrapped the enforcement tool — a narrow-seeming move that allowed the Trump administration to prevail in court.

Put differently, to impede Biden’s rule, opponents would at least have to come up with something else to argue in front of a judge.

Tegeler, of the Poverty Race and Research Action Council, feels cautiously optimistic about the rule’s chances to survive this time around.

“The fact that the prior rule came out in 2015 and became a campaign issue, along with the false narrative about taking away suburban zoning power and all that nonsense, I think that was a recipe for repeal of the rule in the new administration,” he told me. “The problem was there wasn’t enough time for this to become a routine part of federal housing programs. If it had come out in 2013, I think it would have been quite different; there would have been four years of practice, and it wouldn’t have been such a big deal.”

That said, if the rule is only in effect for one year and then a Republican takes the White House, it’s hard to say what they might do. “It depends on how much of a political football it becomes,” Tegeler said.

The new front in the right’s war on abortion

Originally published in Vox on January 9, 2023.

The Biden administration helped expand access to medication abortion last week, with the US Food and Drug Administration finalizing a rule to make the pills more readily available in pharmacies. But this effort to help patients get pills to end a pregnancy could be dwarfed by a major push to restrict access to the medication from anti-abortion leaders and their Republican allies.

As lawmakers head back to state legislatures this month, many for the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Republicans face new pressure to restrict access to the combination of abortion-inducing drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol, used typically within the first 10 to 12 weeks of a pregnancy. Medication abortion has become the most common method for ending pregnancies in the United States, partly due to its safety record, its lower cost, diminished access to in-person care, and greater opportunities for privacy.

Restricting access to the pills is not a new goal for the anti-abortion movement; the Guttmacher Institute tracked 118 medication abortion restrictions introduced last year across 22 states, and many conservative states already have laws on the books for dispensing the drugs that go beyond what the FDA requires and what leading health organizations recommend.

But efforts to crack down on abortion pills have taken on new urgency since the Dobbs v. Jackson decision. More women are finding ways to bypass abortion bans through organizations like Aid Access in Europe, pill suppliers from Mexico, and methods like mail forwarding from states where abortion is legal. While a study from the Society of Family Planning estimated that legal abortions nationwide declined by more than 10,000 in the two months following the Supreme Court’s decision, some or many of those abortions may have been replaced by pills women privately obtained and researchers couldn’t count.

“Everyone who is trafficking these pills should be in jail for trafficking,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told the Washington Post in December. “It hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.”

Some of the restrictions on medication abortion leaders are considering extend well beyond those pursued by lawmakers in previous years, when their focus was generally on banning telemedicine and adding more requirements for dispensing pills in person, like mandatory ultrasounds, waiting periods, and visits with doctors.

Anti-abortion activists are exploring new strategies, such as laws to ban websites like Aid Access and Plan C and laws to make health care providers newly liable for disposing of aborted fetal tissue. In a federal lawsuit filed in November, one religious conservative group has challenged the FDA’s approval of mifepristone writ large, alleging the agency abused its authority 23 years ago in authorizing the drug at all.

Some lawmakers are looking to test the limits of their extraterritorial powers, exploring how and whether they could punish a resident for getting an out-of-state abortion, or retaliate against providers in other states who facilitate them.

“Anti-abortion advocates are throwing the kitchen sink in an attempt to see what might work,” said Jenny Ma, a senior attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “That’s the same playbook the anti-abortion movement had before Dobbs … but they’ve become emboldened.”

Sue Liebel, the director of state affairs with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told Vox she expects states to pursue “creative” strategies for enforcement, including through state health departments, boards of pharmacy, and the police. “Everyone’s trying something different,” she said. “If there’s one thing I can anticipate, in this particular year of legislative sessions, when we’re not even quite 200 days from Dobbs, I think the keyword this year is ‘variety.’ While things are a little early right now, I know it’s going to explode very soon.”

Leaders are looking at new ways to enforce anti-abortion laws

Some states have banned abortion entirely — including abortion pills — while others have banned telemedicine abortion, meaning individuals can only obtain the drugs in person from a doctor. But there are workarounds. If you live in a state like Texas, you can still order pills from Aid Access, which ships internationally to restrictive states. Or you could travel to a less restrictive state, connect with a provider there, and then pick up the pills from a discreet location. Others rely on friends, acquaintances, and activist networks in abortion-friendly areas to help them get the medication.

To crack down on these options, anti-abortion leaders are exploring new ways to ramp up enforcement of existing rules and restrictions. With poorly regulated data privacy laws, aggressive prosecutors could amass a lot of evidence if they suspect a person obtained an illegal abortion, or an abortion that would not be legal in their home state.

One proposal, which is expected to be introduced this week in Texas, would expand the ability of private citizens to bring civil lawsuits against anyone thought to have terminated a pregnancy illegally with abortion pills. This would build on a six-week abortion ban that took effect in Texas in 2021, which included the novel citizen enforcement mechanism.

John Seago, president of Texas Right to Life, told Vox they’re looking to “utilize those civil liability tools” for abortion before six weeks, and his group is working to identify examples of people who might be distributing abortion pills illegally for local prosecutors to then charge.

Seago said Texas lawmakers are also going to explore ways to hold groups with ties to abortion pill distributors “financially and criminally accountable.” Though some medication abortion providers are outside Texas and outside the United States, Seago said elected officials are looking to target entities with connections to the providers that might have subsidiaries in Texas. “If there is still an affiliation or cooperation of other entities with that pharmacy or physician dispensing the pills, then legislators can look at our law and spread out the accountability,” he said.

In October, Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma asked their state’s attorney general for a formal opinion clarifying whether self-managed abortions constitute murder under their strict abortion ban. A spokesperson for Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor told Vox that request is still “being evaluated.”

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has been speaking with conservative governors regarding ways to restrict shipments of abortion medication. Liebel, the state affairs director, acknowledged that internet sales makes enforcement of existing rules difficult.

“But we are also aware that states have requirements for parental consent that may or may not be followed by these [online] providers,” she said, adding that they’re working to craft legislation to address this.

To crack down on medication abortion, experts anticipate more politicians will follow in the wake of Missouri lawmakers, who in 2021 and 2022 began testing the limits of restricting abortion outside their borders. Advocates expect to see more bills targeting out-of-state doctors who prescribe pills to their residents, and bills targeting those who may “aid and abet” a pregnant person in traveling out of state.

“Anti-abortion states will not be satisfied with just banning abortion in their states and are looking to flex their extraterritorial muscles,” said Lorie Chaiten, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

To restrict medication abortion, activists are leaning into misleading and false arguments about women’s health and safety

Medication abortion in the US has long been subject to more rules and restrictions than other drugs with higher risks of death or adverse complications.

Over the objections of groups like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the FDA has long had mifepristone on its Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS) list, a designation used when the government determines that increased restrictions are necessary for a drug’s benefit to outweigh its risks. As a result, the FDA could require that only certified medical professionals in hospitals, medical offices, or clinics administer the pills, meaning someone couldn’t just fill a prescription at their local pharmacy.

In 2017, the ACLU sued the FDA, arguing its mifepristone restrictions were not medically justified.

In part due to pressure from the ACLU’s still-pending lawsuit, during the pandemic the FDA temporarily lifted its requirement that mifepristone be dispensed in person at a clinic or a hospital. In December 2021, the FDA announced it would permanently lift the in-person dispensal requirement, and last week the FDA officially clarified that certified pharmacies can dispense mifepristone.

While that is still more restrictive than what leading health groups recommend, advocates praised these changes as measures in the right direction toward expanding abortion access.

But for many leaders in the anti-abortion movement, these actions were cast as proof that lawmakers are “lowering medical standards” and putting women at risk. In an op-ed published last year, Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, laid out the case that loosening the REMS restrictions is “anti-woman and anti-science.”

Hawkins emphasized that “more than 20” women have died of complications from abortion medication since 2000. (This is out of the nearly 5 million women in the US who have taken the drugs in that period. The FDA reports a total of 4,207 “adverse events” in that time, or a rate of 0.09 percent, less than one-tenth of 1 percent; overall, legal abortion by any method was found to be 14 times less deadly than childbirth.)

Hawkins also argued that medication abortion “causes four times the complications as surgical abortion” and comes with a “risk of death that is ten times higher,” citing research from 2009 and 2006. Both studies are “outdated and rely on outdated medication abortion protocols,” Ushma Upadhyay, a professor with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California San Francisco, told Vox. The 2009 study in particular, Upadhyay added, “is simply not credible or rigorous.”

Anti-abortion leaders also claim that easing up on requirements for in-person doctor visits endangers women at risk of ectopic pregnancies, and threatens the fertility of women with Rh-negative blood type. (Approximately 1 to 2 percent of all pregnancies in the US are ectopic, and 15 percent of the population has Rh-negative blood type.) In a new citizen petition Students for Life filed last month, the activists called on the FDA to return to its previous REMS standard, partly for these reasons.

“We have a long track record of working to restore the health and safety standards that the Biden Administration has stripped from Chemical Abortion Pills,” Kristi Hamrick, a spokesperson for Students for Life, told Vox in an email. “Chemical Abortion Pills lead to injury, infertility, and even death as well as exposing women to abusers who have used the drugs without women’s knowledge or consent.”

Liebel of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America told Vox they are encouraging state lawmakers to pass “additional health and safety standards” around the distribution of medication abortion pills, citing the loosening of the REMS rules. In addition to requiring in-person screenings, Liebel said they’re pushing for more emergency room reporting requirements, to ensure that any complications from the drugs are not miscoded as miscarriages.

“We think there’s a real public health threat there,” she said. “A lot of state laws on abortion-inducing drugs are pretty old, pretty stale, so [lawmakers] are playing a little bit of catch-up.”

Health experts say the medical concerns raised by anti-abortion activists are not backed by evidence. Unknowingly treating a patient who has an ectopic pregnancy with mifepristone and misoprostol will not harm the patient, said Upadhyay, and “there is absolutely no evidence” that Rh in the context of abortion protects against future fertility.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists maintains that medication to manage Rh-negative pregnancies should not be a barrier to the provision of medication abortion.

When it comes to safely ending pregnancies, medication abortion is over 95 percent successful, according to Guttmacher, with less than 0.4 percent of patients requiring hospitalization. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has also affirmed medication abortion as a safe method to terminate pregnancy, and concluded that there is no medical need for the drugs to be administered in the physical presence of a health care provider.

Earlier this week, Patrizia Cavazzoni, the director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, sent a response to Students for Life’s December petition, denying its request. She noted the anti-abortion activists had provided no “new data or evidence beyond what was provided” in a similar 2019 petition the FDA also denied.

Kirsten Moore, the director of the Expanding Medication Abortion Access project, says she’s not surprised anti-abortion activists are trying to scare the public about mifepristone, especially since most people are still not very familiar with medication abortion, let alone how reproductive systems work.

“I want policy that is grounded in evidence and data, but I don’t believe fighting it out at that level with antis, saying my fact is better than your fact, will really matter in the court of public opinion,” she told Vox. “What I know for sure is that when we just stick to the simple fact that this is an FDA-approved drug that has been in use for more than 20 years, with a complication rate of less than 0.5 percent and is a safe, non-invasive option for early abortion, people like that idea and feel comfortable with it.”

Anti-abortion activists are exploring new emboldened challenges

While Students for Life’s December FDA petition was recently rejected, another citizen petition the group filed in November is still pending — and this one makes a more novel demand.

As first reported by Politico, the group has asked the FDA to require any doctor who prescribes abortion pills to bag the fetal tissue as medical waste, rather than allow the remains to be flushed down the toilet. (There is no direct evidence that abortion pills contaminate water supply, and experts have dismissed the notion that flushing these drugs poses a legitimate environmental threat.) Students for Life is also working with Republican lawmakers to push bills, in state legislatures and in Congress, that would promote this new medical waste disposal requirement.

“They are shamelessly co-opting the environmental movement’s messaging for their own agenda,” said Ma, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who raised concern about the chilling effect it may have on providers.

Similarly, in November, Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious conservative group known for defending a baker’s right to refuse to make a wedding cake for an LGBTQ couple, filed a lawsuit before a Trump-appointed judge in Texas arguing that the FDA abused its authority when it approved mifepristone 22 years ago. The plaintiffs demand the FDA withdraw its approval for mifepristone entirely.

The judge overseeing the case, Matthew Kacsmaryk, “has shown an extraordinary willingness to interpret the law creatively to benefit right-wing causes,” as Vox has previously reported. Last month, Kacsmaryk handed down a decision claiming that Title X, a federal program that funds voluntary family planning services including birth control, “violates the constitutional right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children.”

Lorie Chaiten, with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told Vox that with such politicized courts, the public can’t count on the case to disappear. “The lawsuit is completely and utterly baseless, and has so many procedural defects and in a normal world it goes away quickly,” she said. “But unfortunately, we may not be in a normal world.”

The stakes of 2024

Activists’ goal has never been to just allow abortions to continue in Democratic-controlled areas. Rather, anti-abortion leaders are organizing to make abortion illegal and inaccessible nationwide.

To do that will require winning back the White House in 2024, especially as the Biden administration has shown willingness to use executive power to defend reproductive freedom, via agencies like the FDA, the Justice Departmentthe Postal Service, and Health and Human Services.

One unsettled question looming for anti-abortion activists is whether states have the legal authority to pass rules that exceed what the FDA requires, or even outright ban drugs that the FDA has approved.

Through the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, Congress empowered the FDA as the sole agency to approve drugs in the US. It’s responsible for reviewing a drug’s safety, weighing its risks and benefits, and regulating appropriate conditions for safe and effective use. The question is whether federal regulation of drugs would take precedence, or preempt, any state restrictions.

For now, legal scholars say it’s unclear how these questions will play out in court. Courts often grant deference to the FDA, though there are relatively few examples involving drugs. The main precedent is a 2014 case where a federal judge struck down a Massachusetts effort to restrict the opioid Zohydro, since the FDA had approved the painkiller.

As lawyers wrestle with these questions, anti-abortion advocates recognize they can bypass some of the confusion simply by gaining control over the federal government. As a result, they’re pressing Republican lawmakers who express presidential ambitions with questions about how they’d intend to crack down on medication abortion. An anti-abortion president could do things like pressure the FDA and other federal agencies to restrict access to abortion, or simply refuse to engage state preemption challenges.

Inside the fight for an end-of-year deal on the child tax credit

Originally published in Vox on December 5, 2022.

In 2021, an expansion of the child tax credit delivered hundreds of dollars monthly to some 35 million parents across the United States, helping them afford gas, food, and school expenses, and lifting almost 3 million children out of poverty. But last December, Democrats narrowly failed to approve an extension of the expanded credit, and it expired.

Now, with only a few weeks remaining before a new Congress takes office, advocates for the child tax credit are trying again to get an expansion included in any end-of-year tax package.

It’s a tall order, especially because Democrats would need at least 10 Senate Republicans to agree to pass any broad deal; last year, even a simple Democratic majority proved out of reach. But Democrats believe the political dynamics have since changed in their favor, and so have their policy demands, making a compromise potentially easier for Republican moderates to stomach.

The sticking point since the expanded credit expired has been Republicans and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s resistance to the idea that a more generous child tax credit should go to families where no parents are working. 2021 marked the only time in its quarter-century history that the CTC had no parental work requirement, and it was that feature, experts agree, that drove the policy’s substantial reduction in child poverty: a stunning 46 percent drop in one year, according to US Census data. Until the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August, Democrats and their allies were unwilling to entertain any child tax credit expansion that maintained a connection to work.

Now, though, Democrats are signaling they’d embrace a more modest expansion — ideally one that keeps the credit fully available for all families, but at least makes it easier for parents with little to no earnings to access, even if at a reduced rate. Whether lawmakers can increase the amount of funding available for parents of infants and toddlers, as opposed to all kids under 18, is another option on the table.

The biggest negotiating card Democrats have right now is certain expiring business tax breaks. Since 1974, companies have been allowed to deduct research and development (R&D) spending the same year they make the investments, but as a budget gimmick included in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, businesses, as of 2022, now must expense those costs over five or 15 years instead. Restoring the right to annually deduct R&D spending is a top legislative priority of the business community.

Advocates are hoping to pair any restoration of R&D tax breaks with an extension of the child tax credit. In November, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who chairs the Senate finance committee, declared his intent to push for both together while Democrats still control both chambers of Congress.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, chair of the Senate banking committee, has stated that expanding the CTC is his top priority. “I’ll put it this way, no more tax breaks for big corporations and the wealthy unless the child tax credit’s with it. I’ll lay down in front of a bulldozer on that one,” he said in September.

Additional aid for Ukraine, public health, and disaster relief are the Biden administration’s top priorities for any end-of-year deal, but in late November, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said that if corporate tax breaks are included in a final deal, tax cuts “for working families” should be as well.

The negotiations ultimately may turn on just how much corporate lobbying pressure Republican lawmakers face. Prior to the midterms, Republicans anticipated much bigger electoral gains, making compromise with Democrats ahead of the new Congress seem less urgent. But now, with Democrats set to retain Senate control and Republican House margins tighter than expected, the expectation that Republicans would even be able to reach a deal on the business tax breaks next year if they wanted to looks dicey.

This reality, in fact, partly explains why Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced last week that he’d like to negotiate an omnibus tax package in December, rather than a temporary spending deal that prevents a government shutdown but kicks the can on serious legislative decisions. Pushing the tax negotiations to 2023 would mean incoming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, rather than current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would be tasked with getting an acceptable deal through his chamber. “Nobody trusts McCarthy to pass anything (not even McCarthy),” quipped Politico in late November.

Though some advocates are still publicly calling for the expanded CTC of 2021, most acknowledge they’d accept more modest improvements

The 2021 expansion of the child tax credit, passed as part of President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief program, sent thousands of dollars to parents across the US. It made non-working and poor families fully eligible for the credit’s full value and increased the value of the subsidy itself — up to $3,600 per child.

Democrats had been optimistic that if they could just seed the generous program through the American Rescue Plan, then they would amass the kind of political support that makes a popular subsidy hard to repeal. But they failed, and the CTC is resultantly back to its pre-Covid form, with a maximum of $2,000 per child for working families only — and will remain there unless lawmakers change it.

At the heart of ongoing debates over the CTC are unsettled questions about what the policy is for. Is it to reduce childhood poverty? Is it to incentivize parents to work? Is it to help all kids?

Some Democratic lawmakers and CTC activists have been publicly calling for a reinstatement of the 2021 child tax credit, pointing to the research showing it helped families, reduced child poverty, and did not deter parents from working.

In late October, dozens of centrist Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to House leadership calling for an extension of the CTC passed under the American Rescue Plan. Theirs was followed by a similar letter, making the same ask, signed by dozens of progressive Democratic lawmakers. Another letter in November signed by over 550 hunger groups likewise called on congressional leadership to reinstate the child tax credit from 2021.

Adam Ruben, the director of Economic Security Project Action, a group organizing for the CTC, told me that advocates both in Congress and outside Capitol Hill are “crystal clear and aligned” in calling for the child tax credit that passed the House as part of their Build Back Better package, which mirrored the American Rescue Plan version. “That’s the version that’s most effective at reducing poverty, most effective at helping families with the high cost of gas and groceries,” he said.

Yet privately, most child tax credit champions admit they’d accept something less generous than the American Rescue Plan version, and in lobbying meetings they aren’t pressing lawmakers to hold the line, as they did during the reconciliation process. Even some lawmakers and advocates are saying this now publicly.

One option to expand the credit is to focus on the 19 million children under age 17 who currently receive less than the full $2,000, either because their parents earn too little to qualify or because they aren’t working at all. (These children are disproportionately Black, Latino, American Indian, or Alaska Native.)

Expanding the credit for those 19 million children — or, as policymakers say, making the credit “fully refundable” — would cost about $12 billion per year. But it’s not really the cost, advocates acknowledge, that’s the barrier to doing that. It’s that Manchin and Republicans believe it’s important for the credit to maintain some connection to working parents.

As a compromise, Democratic aides say they’re hoping they could make the credit at least fully refundable for parents of young children, or lower the amount parents need to earn to qualify for the credit’s full value.

“I have always believed that in the end this would be bipartisan, that it wouldn’t be just the way I had designed it, that the Republicans would make some changes to it,” Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet said recently on a Politico podcast.

Elyssa Schmier, a lobbyist with MomsRising, told me that while their long-term goal is to see a permanent extension of the child tax credit passed under the American Rescue Plan, what they’re hoping to see in a lame-duck deal “is first and foremost the inclusion of the child tax credit” and in a form that helps it reach as many families in need as possible. Schmier said their focus is not on increasing the value of the credit right now, but expanding it for low-income families currently barred by work requirements.

Rev. Jim Wallis, another child tax credit advocate who leads the Georgetown University Center on Faith and Justice, said he’s not expecting lawmakers to approve a permanent end to all work requirements in December, and said advocates are pushing for some kind of “expansion” targeted specifically to the poorest and most vulnerable families.

Most liberal activists right now agree with Schmier and Wallis that focusing on the credit’s anti-poverty potential is the most important piece. Other coalition letters have been careful to exclude mention of the 2021 child tax credit, so as to not imply they’re demanding the same policy they were calling for earlier this year. One congressional letter sent by five national civil rights organizations simply called to “expand the CTC,” as did another sent by a coalition of Christian churches and ministries.

The money elephant in the room

One reason many Democrats are trying to minimize discussion of the 2021 expanded child tax credit now is because it — and the version Democrats passed in their subsequent House Build Back Better package — is very expensive, with a price tag exceeding more than $100 billion per year.

“I love the CTC, but I think advocates have done a terrible job of acting like it costs peanuts,” said one Democratic aide working on the negotiations. “It gets you nowhere to pretend we can do this massive transformational thing for nothing. Like expectations here have just been so out of whack because none of the advocates would admit this massive expansion of child benefits costs a lot of money.”

Rather than focus on comparing dollar amounts between the child tax credit and the business tax breaks, CTC advocates have stressed lawmakers should focus instead on parity of time for benefits. In other words, if Congress extends R&D tax breaks for another two years, then they should extend the child tax credit in some form for two years, too. A spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce declined to comment.

For now, Democratic aides say they’re waiting to hear more details from Senate leadership over how much money is on the table to work with at all. McConnell has previously insisted that any end-of-year tax deal must prioritize defense spending over domestic policies, given that Democrats have already passed major domestic policy bills this year, though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he intends to fight this.

One crucial factor, according to Senate aides, will be if Republicans feel like they’re getting a fair trade — something that can be measured in terms of dollar amount, length of time, or even, frankly, just “vibes.” When House lawmakers first sent their letters in late October and early November calling for a reinstatement of the 2021 expanded CTC in exchange for business tax breaks, some Republican staffers felt Democrats were not making a serious offer, given that many Democrats also want the R&D credits extended. In other words, since Democrats weren’t coming out of the gate with any proposed cuts to their own priorities, it didn’t seem like a great deal to Republicans, or even a realistic threat.

Democratic aides I spoke with said the threat to vote against R&D tax breaks if not paired with the child tax credit is no bluff, and pointed to the fact that Democrats have stood resolved against approving the business tax breaks to this point despite intense lobbying pressure. “If the number of Democrats willing to support the Young-Hassan bill were compelling then this would have been passed by now,” one aide said, referring to a bill Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) have tried to include in multiple legislative vehicles this past year.

Sam Hammond, the director of social policy at the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank, thinks the chances of reaching a deal on the child tax credit this month are relatively slim, though he believes the results of the midterms increased its odds. “Even though Democrats lost the House, just having control of the Senate floor is, like, nine-tenths of the battle over what can be put on the floor and up for a vote,” he said. “I think if Republicans had swept, there wouldn’t be a tax package being discussed at all.”

Where are Republicans on this?

Conservatives opposed to expanding the child tax credit are sensing that a legislative deal might not be far-fetched, and have started to ramp up their opposition.

The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed and an editorial against the CTC in late November, perhaps the clearest indication they recognize it’s time to fight. “The tax credit is a parable about good intentions, unintended consequences, and the insatiable entitlement state,” the Journal argued, citing new studies that estimate a permanent extension of the American Rescue Plan child tax credit would reduce economic output by 0.2 percent over a decade, and lead to 1.5 million people leaving the workforce.

In June, Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (UT), Richard Burr (NC), and Steve Daines (MT) introduced a new bill — the Family Security Act 2.0 — to distribute monthly cash payments to parents. The proposal is a modified version of a child allowance policy Romney introduced in 2021, though his new bill includes a requirement that families earn at least $10,000 to receive its full benefit.

The Republican proposal would mark a big expansion from the current child tax credit. It would increase the maximum value from $2,000 to $4,200 for each child under age 6 and $3,000 for each child ages 6 through 17, paid out in monthly installments.

Romney’s office declined to comment for this story, but the Utah senator told Semafor “it’s probably not going to be until next year that we consider new legislation” on the CTC.

Most other Republicans, though, are being more tight-lipped, and Ruben, of the Economic Security Project, says his conversations with Republicans suggest they’re keeping their negotiating options open for now.

“We’re talking to Republican offices that say they want to do more for families than current law provides, and when we say, ‘What’s your bottom line in terms of what you can or can’t accept?’ they say, ‘Well, I don’t know, it’s a deal,’” Ruben said. “They don’t say, ‘It has to absolutely do this,’ or has to be written in a certain way. It’s all more fluid in Congress right now than that.”