First Person

I Helped Low-Income Americans Save for Retirement—Until Trump Ended the Program

Last month, the Treasury Department announced plans to wind down the myRA program, an Obama-era initiative designed to help low- and middle-income earners start a retirement account. According to the July 28 press release, the Treasury could not justify the expense the three-year-old program represented to taxpayers, given the slow uptake of the program among its target demographic: the 55 million Americans who lack access to a workplace retirement plan.

The argument against myRA’s expense is hard to swallow, since the next item on President Donald Trump’s agenda is a tax reform plan that could cost as much as $7 trillion over the next decade. The myRA program would be 0.001 percent of the cost. The claim that enrollment has been unenthusiastic isn’t much easier to stomach, since the program was so new. Publicity efforts, such as partnerships with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs and promotions through government websites and TurboTax, have not yet been executed.

In reality, it was a deeply practical, badly needed program. I spent this past tax season working with United Way of King County to expand the savings options available to low-income taxpayers in Seattle. Tax time is one of the only times a year that saving is a real possibility for low-income earners—their tax refunds are often the largest lump-sum payment they receive all year. Asking clients a question as simple as, “Are you considering saving a portion of your refund today?” was enough to spark a meaningful conversation about budgeting, savings, and overall financial stability. Tax clients had the option of splitting their refund into a savings account, savings bond, or myRA, which was piloted at United Way’s tax sites for the first time this season.

For middle- and upper-income earners, retirement programs are an assumed benefit.

myRA was a great fit for clients who were new to saving. The accounts had no minimum balance required, no fees, and no risk of losing money. Account holders could withdraw contributions in case of an emergency, and had the option to automatically contribute from their paycheck. And since almost 1 in 6 King County households are underbanked or unbanked, myRA’s accessibility without a formal relationship with a bank or other financial institution is a major asset. Of course, myRA was not perfect: It was hard to access without a Social Security number, and it counted against people enrolled in other safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps (SNAP) in states with public assistance asset limits.

Imperfections aside, myRA provided a straightforward and flexible savings platform unlike any other. For middle- and upper-income earners, primarily white collar workers, retirement programs are an assumed benefit. There is no comparable alternative for workers whose employers don’t offer such benefits. And with the increasing necessity of “side hustles” in the gig economy, many workers don’t even have an employer to fill that role. Five states are moving forward with state-sponsored retirement plans called “Secure Choice,” which provides some hope, despite congressional efforts to block them.

After I left Seattle, I worked with a think tank in Washington, D.C. I passed by the Treasury building on my way to the office every morning, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on the thousands of taxpayers all the way across the country in the “other” Washington.

The label “taxpayer” is one Americans on both sides of the country (and the states in between) wear with honor, regardless of their political ideology. The structure of our tax code, the loopholes and deductions we permit, and whether or not we feel our tax burden is fair should be reflective of our values. If we value financial stability, for ourselves and our neighbors, we need to support programs like myRA. Without it, there aren’t many safe and accessible retirement savings options for lower-income workers. Innovative programs that could level the playing field deserve a chance to prove that they work, instead of being shut down.



The U.S. Is Still Forcibly Sterilizing Prisoners

Last month, news broke that a Tennessee judge issued a standing order offering inmates a 30-day sentence reduction if they underwent a permanent birth control procedure: vasectomies for men, or a 4-year birth control implant (Nexplanon) for women. Though the program is technically voluntary, media pointed to it as a form of coercion that forces inmates into sterilization. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, arguing that the program “violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy.”

But the media missed a key piece of context in its outcry: Programs like this aren’t actually unusual. The United States has a long history of forcibly sterilizing people, and it never really stopped.

Starting in 1907, state governments sanctioned sterilization as a form of eugenics, to prevent anyone with undesirable traits—disabilities, poverty, a criminal record, specific racial backgrounds—from procreating. This type of legislation justified the sterilization of approximately 60,000 Americans until the laws were phased out in the late 1970s. But that doesn’t mean the practice actually ended: In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 148 female inmates in California received tubal ligations without their consent between 2006 and 2010. Just one year later, the Associated Press reported on at least four instances of prosecutors in Nashville including birth control requirements in plea deals.

Other recent examples of court-required sterilization throughout the country include a 21-year-old West Virginia mother who had her tubes tied as part of her probation for marijuana possession (2009), and a man in Virginia who traded a vasectomy for a lighter child endangerment sentence (2014). “We’re starting to reach a point where the courts are responsible for anyone,” explained one prosecutor involved in a Florida plea deal. “It’s one final step to have to supervise teenagers in sexual relationships they aren’t ready to handle.”

Starting in 1907, state governments sanctioned sterilization as a form of eugenics.

The prosecutors in each of the recent cases lean on a classic conservative talking point to justify this paternalism: the need for “personal responsibility.” Judge Sam Benningfield, who is behind the recent sterilization program in Tennessee, used those exact words in his justification: “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility … This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”

It is strange to think that these prosecutors and judges do not connect “responsibility” to “autonomy,” and stranger still that they see no connection between the personal and the systemic. At the core of each of these stories is an individual whose body was violated. But these plea deals tap into a historical pattern of abuse against people of color, LGBTQ people, people with physical and mental illness, and those living in poverty. Instead of acknowledging the systemic failure and offering basic supports to the communities most likely to bear the brunt of these policies, they are punished in one of the most dehumanizing ways imaginable.

This disconnect is threaded through the conservative platform on reproductive justice. Campaign promises to defund Planned Parenthood, an organization providing affordable family planning services, have become canon for the GOP. Eighty-five percent of Planned Parenthood patients have an income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Defunding these clinics would have a profound and disparate impact on those living in poverty, communities of color, rural communities, and the LGBTQ community. Many of these patients often do not have access to alternative providers for reproductive health care—including cancer screenings like pap smears and breast exams, sexual health education, sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, and contraception. These clinics empower patients to make their own reproductive decisions, but conservatives are on a crusade to take away their agency while simultaneously spouting rhetoric about individual responsibility. The contradiction appears to escape their notice.

Marginalized communities do not suffer from a lack of personal responsibility. They suffer from a lack of resources and support. Instead of dismantling organizations that serve these communities and leaving it to the criminal justice system to serve as the arbiter of family planning, let’s support the institutions and policies that empower and build capacity for self-determination.



Poverty Doesn’t Make People Racist

We tell ourselves little lies to make the world make more sense. Sometimes it’s because we’re looking for reason in madness, sometimes it’s because we’re telling ourselves pretty little falsehoods to avoid guilt. We lie to ourselves and each other about how the nation works, who’s at the top and bottom of various ladders. We find scapegoats for societal ills, to make them into something separate from ourselves.

Right now, we are looking for a story that lets us assign blame for terror and racism. The uprising in Charlottesville has knocked the wind out of us, and it is only natural to hope that the blame can be placed on something impersonal, to believe that no human being might simply be addicted to hate.

That’s likely how it came to be that former congressman and mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to say this:

Most of the issues that we’re dealing with now are related to poverty. But we still want to put everything in a racial context. The problem with the—and the reason I feel uncomfortable condemning the Klan types is—they are almost the poorest of the poor.

They are the forgotten Americans. And, um, they have been used and abused and neglected. Instead of giving them affordable health care, they give them black lung jobs, and they’re happy.

And that just doesn’t make sense in today’s world. And they see progress in the black community and on television and everywhere and they don’t share it.

It is a good impulse to look for structural reasons for social ills. But it goes too far when it removes agency from human beings. Poverty, even the crushing sort that has you rolling pennies to buy milk, does not cause bigotry. One does not conceive a love of genocide because the economy tanks. We choose what we say, and whom we hurt.

If poverty were a causal effect for racism, then you would not expect to see quite so many virulent racists in the upper classes. David Duke and Richard Spencer were both children of some privilege. Stephen Miller didn’t grow up in straitened circumstances. These are the men who stoke the fears and resentments of the lower classes, who manipulate and misinform.

There is no excuse for willful evil.

Lyndon Johnson famously said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” He wasn’t wrong, and that strategy has been used to great effect over the centuries. It’s why we have de facto segregation, it’s why we pushed through welfare reform using the boogeyman of the “welfare queen,” and it’s why the same crime gets you a different sentence depending on what color you are. Find a bit of structural racism, and behind it you’ll find a white politician pandering to the worst parts of human nature to gain or hold power.

But there is a difference between misinformation and hate. I know many good people who support bad policies; they are well-intentioned but misinformed. I don’t know many good people who take pleasure in terrorizing others, who would join hate groups and call it a fight for utopia. We live under crushing poverty and manage to not kill our horrible bosses or the uncaring bill collectors; we can surely manage to not join the Klan.

There is no excuse for willful evil, even if someone’s life is filled with pain and desperation. Someone who is very poor has few choices, but the things you can choose are all about what sort of person you want to be. It’s the one thing you can control, the one thing you can’t lose and nobody can take from you. Those choices are intentional, adult decisions. To explain them away is to say that the poor are incapable of moral reasoning. In our quest to be reasonable and kind to the less fortunate, we risk making them not human at all.

One day we will have a conversation about race in the upper classes, about the people who make the laws and set the narratives and peddle these lies. Today is not that day, and sometimes it seems like that day might never come. For now, it is enough to say: The poor cannot afford illusions about themselves or their lives. At least give them respect that any autonomous human deserves, and call evil “evil” without equivocation.

Poverty does not cause bigotry, no matter how comforting it might be to tell ourselves it does.



Texas Is Finally Doing Something About Its Maternal Mortality Rate

This week, the Texas legislature passed—and the Governor signed into law—a bill to address the state’s maternal mortality crisis. As it stands, Texas is the deadliest state to give birth in, and it’s the deadliest state for new mothers—especially for African American women, who are at the most risk. Among OECD member countries, Texas’ maternal mortality rate comes second only to Mexico.

It took the entirety of both the state’s regular legislative session and a month-long special session, but the bipartisan bill finally crossed the finish line. The new law will extend the state’s Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force’s expiration date to 2023 and require it to report on disparities in pregnancy-related deaths (including socio-economic status) and best practices in lowering mortality rates in other states, as well as actually evaluate options to reduce maternal deaths.

The task force, which was created in 2013, has already identified a lack of early pregnancy care as a significant contributor to death. In some ways, that’s unsurprising: Nearly 25 percent of Texas women are uninsured, and the state leads the country in the total uninsured rate. Because of cost, over the past year 52 percent of Texas women reported skipping a doctor’s appointment or test, not getting specialist care, or being unable to fill a prescription. This is a far higher percentage than what was found in states with similar uninsured rates, such as Florida, as well as in states with similar populations, such as California.

Despite this bleak picture for women in need of care, the legislature failed to send any proposals to the governor that would have actually provided for greater coverage for the treatment and care of women struggling financially.

Nearly 25 percent of Texas women are uninsured.

One reason for the high uninsured rate is the state’s extremely restrictive Medicaid eligibility standards: In addition to failing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, parents of two children in Texas must earn less than $386 a month to qualify for Medicaid coverage. (That’s only one-fifth of the federal poverty level, which is $2,050 for a family of four). Texas allows more women to gain care through Medicaid during the duration of their pregnancy, but drops them 60 days after delivery. The task force also found that the majority of deaths occur more than 42 days after birth—likely after many women at risk for death lost access to the program.

In discussing Texas’ maternal mortality rate, many advocates have noted that births paid for by Medicaid (which are unfortunately higher-risk than those paid for by private insurance) significantly increased after the state cut family planning programs by tens of millions in 2011. The cuts must also be factored into understanding why Texas’ mortality rate has stayed consistently high for years after the initial spike.

But, though the state has undoubtedly been slashing family planning funds and shuttering clinics at a reckless rate for several years now, the fact is that the dramatic increases in deaths began before these reckless policies were passed and implemented.

There are other early findings that do not have clear answers yet. Despite being among most likely to be uninsured, Latina women were found to have an even lower mortality rate than white women. In contrast, African American women are disproportionately likely to experience maternal death: While only accounting for approximately 11 percent of births, these women make up about 29 percent of deaths.

The task force’s new responsibility to evaluate approaches in other states will prove illuminating for some of these unanswered questions: North Carolina, for example, implemented a variety of programs to incentivize doctors examining women for conditions that could lead to high-risk pregnancies and provide wraparound supports for those expectant mothers facing health dangers. By doing so, the state made a huge stride forward that should—and must—catch the attention of Texas’ policymakers: It closed the racial gap in the rate of maternal deaths in white and black mothers.

After an onslaught of statistics, it’s important to remember that behind every death statistic is a woman who suffered. Expectant parents everywhere wake up worried about coping with the newborn months. Too many mothers-to-be in Texas, however, must also wake up worried about whether they will even live to see their child crawl or walk.

Given that mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners in more than 60 percent of Texas households, these deaths are not only personal tragedies but ones that can devastate the economic standing of a family. Already, 1 in 4 Texas children live in poverty. And since the average age of new mother is 26, health problems related to birth may hit as a young woman is still working to launch her career with little savings built up.

It would be unacceptable to allow this to continue. The legislature passed a law that will spur research that will illuminate a greater understanding of how to effectively improve maternal health and lower the rates of maternal death. It will be essential, however, for those who truly care to turn that analysis into meaningful change.



A Confederate Monuments Expert Explains How We Memorialized White Supremacy

In the wake of the neo-Nazi attacks in Charlottesville, officials in several Southern states have renewed calls to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces.

This week, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) called for the removal of all Confederate monuments in North Carolina. Mayor Jim Gray (D) of Lexington, Kentucky, announced the removal of two Confederate statues from a historic courthouse in the city. And officials in Florida and Maryland made similar announcements.

But the conversation around the monuments’ removal is missing crucial context around how they got there in the first place. Most Confederate monuments were constructed at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, decades after the Civil War, with a second uptick in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement. Like the popularity of the Confederate battle flag, their construction neatly aligns with backlash against racial progress.

To learn more about the evolution of Civil War iconography, I spoke to Professor Kirk Savage. Savage has spent a career studying the history of monuments. He’s written about the construction of the National Mall, the 9/11 memorial, and he is perhaps best known for Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, a book on the history of Civil War monuments.

Jeremy Slevin: I think a lot of people don’t know that most of these monuments were constructed after the Civil War, around the turn of the 20th century. Can you give us a sense of the timeline and why that happened?

Kirk Savage: The big boom in Confederate monument building was roughly between 1890 and 1920, and then there was a secondary boom in Confederate commemoration that was in reaction to the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. In both these cases, there were political reasons why those monuments were erected when they were. The first boom took place during the consolidation of Jim Crow and racial segregation in the South, the final defeat of the ideals of reconstruction and racial equality in the South. The second boom took place when that Jim Crow era came under threat from the civil rights movement.

Now, I should say that in the North, there was a less marked but similar lag in monument construction, simply because the veterans of that war were dying off. But what really distinguished the white Southern commemoration of the lost cause was the systematic campaign to build monuments, rewrite textbooks, and put Confederate flags and symbols in public schools. This was happening in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a systematic propaganda campaign to advance the racial cause of the Confederacy.

JS: And the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville was constructed at the tail end of that first wave, in the 1920s?

KS: Right, in the 1920s, if I remember correctly. That’s interesting in a way, that it took them so long. Richmond erected its huge monument to Robert E. Lee in 1890, and New Orleans a few years before that. The Richmond monument really kicked off the campaign to make the Confederacy respectable again.

JS: I was struck in your book that these weren’t necessarily initiated by the government. In a lot of cases, they were these volunteer, activist organizations that pushed for these monuments. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KS: Yes, yes, in fact it wasn’t until much later that state governments got involved. In the earlier days in the late 19th century it was these activist organizations that were in the South, largely driven by women’s groups. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was the outgrowth of that organization, which then conducted this systematic campaign that I just mentioned.

There were these pockets of resistance.

That’s the way public monuments worked in general in the 19th century. It was elite civic organizations that erected them, and only certain groups had real access to public space in that period of time. So of course African Americans, Native Americans, people of color had no access to that arena and no entry into those conversations.

JS: Was there public backlash? Of course this is the Jim Crow South we’re talking about, but was there public outcry to these monuments?

KS: There was some, which is interesting. To return to the example of Richmond and the monument to Lee in 1890, there was a black newspaper called The Richmond Planet that published a fiery series of articles in opposition to it, talking about the black community’s relationship to that monument, which of course is entirely different from the white community’s. There were these pockets of resistance. They were largely overlooked by the mainstream white media and politicians, but they were there. What it shows us is that that kind of resistance, that kind of attitude was always there. It just wasn’t reported for the most part.

JS: As you mentioned earlier, there was a second wave during the civil rights movement, which many of us associate with progress and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But there wasn’t a systematic campaign to take down these monuments. In fact, we saw an uptick. Why do you think that was?

KS: Well, look who was in charge of the state and local governments in the South. They were still exclusively in white hands, and they were very worried about their loss of power and the potential that they might have to share power with African Americans. It was very much a backlash against that civil rights movement. You see places like Alabama for the first time in the 1960s displaying the Confederate flag on its capitol building. It was very much a defiant pushback against the forces that were trying to destroy segregation.

JS: It sounds like that mirrors the iconography of the Confederate flag as well. It became a symbol during the lost cause and was taken up by the segregationists in the 1960s. Have they followed a similar trajectory?

KS: Monuments and flags you mean?

JS: Yes.

In defining the past we define our present.

KS: Yeah, it’s interesting to me that after the Dylann Roof massacre in the Charleston church, the first symbols to be attacked were the flags. Of course, he was shown in those photographs holding the Confederate flags. So it’s interesting now that with the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville at the Robert E. Lee memorial, the attention has turned to monuments. But yes, in a sense, these always went in a parallel process. But the unraveling seems to go flag first, monument second.

JS: In the book you write, “Public monuments were meant to yield resolution and consensus … but the process of commemoration often leads to conflict, not closure, because in defining the past we define our present.” What do you see as the next step? Is there a closure? Do these monuments have to come down?

KS: That’s a really tricky question because I have, for a long time, been maintaining—hoping—that we can have a “truth commission” kind of dialogue around these monuments, so the monuments could inspire us and open the way to really confront the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in this nation. The question of what to do with any particular Confederate monument would raise those larger questions that we urgently need to explore and wrestle with as a society.

We can’t just take these monuments down and think that we have solved our problem.

Unfortunately though, I think what’s happened now with Dylann Roof and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville is that the time for dialogue is closing around these monuments. Local governments are put in a position where they have to take them down, because otherwise they’re going to be appropriated by neo-Nazis, or they’re going to be torn down by counter-protestors. It’s a little hard for me to know what the way forward is now because we need to have this dialogue. We can’t just take these monuments down and think that we have solved our problem, because we won’t have. But on the other hand, the monuments are honoring something that we absolutely need to repudiate. The easiest way to repudiate them is to take them down. And I understand why that was done in New Orleans, and I think the mayor there did an eloquent job of explaining why they had to come down. But now everything is lightning speed, and it’s hard to know where we’re going to be even a week from now.

JS: We shall see. I appreciate you joining me professor. Thanks so much, Kirk.

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and will air as part of a complete episode on August 18. It was lightly edited for clarity.