First Person

The Value of Life, Measured by Word Count

My stepfather passed away a few years ago. His death came suddenly and without warning—he went into the bathroom one morning, and my mother discovered him unresponsive on the floor a short time later.

Like most people in my family, he didn’t have life insurance. He also didn’t have a bank account or assets of any kind (we don’t use the word “estate” in my clan). We made all our decisions about his memorial solely by financial cost. Direct cremation—with no casket or funeral—is the cheapest option, so that was our default choice. Even that was beyond the budget for my mother, who doesn’t have a checking account and whose sole income is a meager Social Security check. A few family members somehow managed to scrape together $1,000. I’m not sure how they did it, but my family handles money with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Then we moved on to the obituary. In our town, as in many places, obituaries aren’t free. Our local newspaper charges by the column line, with a minimum charge of $30. Photos cost extra, and large pictures and color come at a premium.

It was my job to write the obituary, and I had to weigh every word and sentence carefully. Including a photo was out of the question, and listing grandchildren by individual name was a luxury we couldn’t afford. His obituary mostly contained just the basic facts: my mother’s name, and those of his children, along with the number of grandkids. We did manage to squeeze in a dozen words to mention that he loved Elvis and left behind his beloved dog—but up until we ran the numbers at the last minute, we weren’t sure if even that brief sentence would make the cut.

When every dollar counts, so does every word.

The cost of a printed obituary can vary widely, depending on the pricing structure and location. Some newspapers charge by word count, while others calculate a price based on column inch. Funeral directors quoted by National Cremation say an average obituary can easily run between $200 and $500. Alan Mutter, who teaches media economics at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, called obituaries “among the most highly profitable advertising format in a newspaper.” Even online, self-service obituary platforms, such as, come at a cost. The expense catches many grieving families, including ours, off-guard. The Print Obituary Pricing Study conducted by AdPay and found that the actual cost of an obituary was considerably more than what consumers expected to pay, especially in large cities.

Obituaries are a distillation of the most important things about someone’s life

That’s partially because we don’t think of obituaries as an ad—we think of them as a public record. They’re a distillation of the most important things about someone’s life, stripped of its flaws until the only thing left is a gleaming statement of value. So we automatically assume that the longer the obituary, the more meaningful the person’s life must have been.

The most significant and impactful contributions in a person’s life can often be summed up in a few short yet powerful words: “He earned a Purple Heart for his valiant bravery in saving fellow soldiers,” “She dedicated herself to her work as a hospice nurse, providing comfort to patients in their final hours,” or even something as simple as, “She worked as a kindergarten teacher for 30 years.”

The longer obituaries, more often than not, don’t show more worth. But they allow for depth. They are filled with amusing yet not-quite-essential tidbits—the woman who could never balance her checkbook because her husband kept helping people pay their bills, or the man who went to trampoline class three times a week when he was 96. These are the things that help the reader feel like they truly knew the deceased person, that capture their personality and commemorate their quirks.

There weren’t many colorful bits in my stepfather’s obituary, which follows a family tradition. My grandmother lived to her mid-80s and had seven children, but her obituary contained just 40 words—less than half a word for each of her years. The tiny notice listed the number of children and grandchildren she had, but there was no room to mention how much she enjoyed watching ice skating on television, or her addiction to National Enquirer (even though she didn’t know who most of the celebrities were).

But that’s how it goes. That final recognition is a luxury reserved only for those lucky enough to be able to afford it.



Poverty Is Largely Invisible Among College Students

The first time I met an undergraduate who hadn’t eaten in two days, I was stunned. The first time I spent the afternoon with a homeless college junior, I cried for most of the night. Now, after a decade of research on food and housing insecurity among college students, I’m just numb.

I teach at an urban public university—a “Research 1,” top-of-the-Carnegie-rankings institution. I’m not one of Philadelphia’s school teachers; I’m a professor with just one class to teach each term and a big research budget. But those trappings of prestige no longer shield me from the realities of poverty in our city, and more importantly, they don’t help my students.

Since 2008, my team’s research on how students finance college has revealed that the main barrier to degree completion isn’t tuition; it’s having a place to sleep and enough food to eat. The best estimates suggest that food insecurity affects as many as 1 in 2 college students—much higher than the rate in the general population. Just as many struggle with housing insecurity, and a significant number (14 percent at community colleges) are homeless.

This is a largely invisible problem. Stereotypes of Ramen-noodle diets and couch-surfing partiers prevent us from seeing it. They trick us into thinking that food insecurity is a rite of passage, that hunger and even homelessness among our students is normal. But it is time to admit that we have a serious problem in higher education.

Some campuses have begun implementing small reforms to address food insecurity. The College and University Food Bank Alliance has more than 525 members from coast to coast, with food pantries housed at community colleges and universities, public and private. This is a stunning increase, since in 2012 there were just over 10. That provides emergency assistance to the students who are lucky enough to know about them, though what they actually stock varies. Sometimes there are fresh fruits and vegetables, but usually there are cans and bags, some bread, and the occasional bottle of shampoo or body wash.

In some cases, colleges are moving beyond food pantries. Just over two dozen schools operate a program known as Swipe Out Hunger, which reallocates unused dollars on meal plans to students who need them. Homegrown efforts such as Single Stop are helping students apply for SNAP, and some institutions are beginning to accept EBT on campus. In Houston, the local food bank is offering “food scholarships” to community college students, proactively providing groceries rather than waiting for emergencies to occur. There are food recovery networks, nutrition programs, and educational activities like Challah for Hunger, where students gather to break bread and learn about poverty. These efforts are entry points to systemic change, and they make it possible to envision a time in which the National School Lunch Program operates on all campuses, providing breakfast and lunch to every student who needs it.

Stereotypes of Ramen-noodle diets and couch-surfing partiers prevent us from seeing it.

But when it comes to housing, things don’t look so good. When colleges and universities think about housing, they see dollar signs to be gained from residence halls catering to wealthy and international students, rather than opportunities to facilitate affordable living. Given massive state disinvestment throughout the country, it is hard to blame the public institutions. But it means that a growing number of students are being left out in the cold.

Students who struggle to pay rent are at risk of eviction, like so many other low-income adults around the country. Those who seek out shelters find the same overcrowded and sometimes dangerous conditions that have long plagued those temporary accommodations, and students often miss out on beds because the lines form while they are still in class. Even young people who grew up in public housing can lose their housing when they enroll in college if their local housing authority deprioritizes full-time undergraduates.

The financial aid system contributes to these problems. Consider a 23-year-old adult living on the streets, estranged from two middle-class parents because he is queer. Under federal law, his parents’ income is used to determine his financial aid, even though he lacks access to those resources. His only hope of disregarding their income and qualifying for more support is to endure a “special circumstances” process that requires documentation verifying that he is homeless, which can be challenging if he was not homeless in high school and is not in the shelter system. In 2015-16, nearly 32,000 college students completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) verification process and were officially deemed homeless for financial aid purposes. However, more than 150,000 students indicated that they were homeless on an initial filtering question, but could not complete the necessary documentation process.

The oversight of the very real housing and food needs of undergraduates is hypocritical given the intense pressure we place on people today to complete college degrees. It is very difficult to complete anything—whether it is a vocational training program for a welding certificate, an associate’s degree in nursing, or an engineering program—without first having your basic needs met.

I am trying, in my own way, to do what I can. Last year, I created the FAST Fund to provide students with cash, quickly, when it is needed. And I added a statement to my syllabus that will remain there indefinitely:

Any student who has difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day or who lacks a safe and stable place to live, and believes this may affect their performance in the course, is urged to contact the CARE Team in the Dean of Students Office for support. Furthermore, please notify me if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable me to provide any other resources that I may possess.

It is but a start, meant to help establish a culture of care in my classroom, one that I hope can be transmitted and reflected throughout the university. We can and must go further. Every college and university must help its students connect to every public benefits program for which they are eligible. That support, coupled with emergency cash assistance, can help shield students from hunger and help them keep a roof over their heads. Colleges should also pursue external partnerships with local food banks, housing authorities, and homeless shelters. And most of all, higher education has a responsibility to tackle poverty among its students in a data-driven way that acknowledges that students without resources do not lack talent, drive, or intellect. They simply need access to the same sorts of supports that students from families with money enjoy every day.

Talk about social mobility is all the rage in higher education right now. But let’s get real: College is a great route out of poverty, but for that path to work students must escape the conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees.



Meet the Congresswoman Trying to Remove Barriers to Opportunity for People with Records

Today, as many as 1 in 3 Americans have some type of criminal record—many convicted of only minor offenses, and some having only arrests that never led to a conviction. But even a minor record can create lifelong barriers to employment, housing, education, and more, relegating many people with records and their families to a lifetime in poverty.

That’s why a bipartisan coalition in Pennsylvania has worked for more than two years to pass first-in-the-nation “clean slate” legislation that would allow minor nonviolent records to be automatically sealed once an individual remains crime-free for a set period of time. A bill was unanimously approved in the Pennsylvania Senate, 50-0, earlier this year, and it is expected to clear the House soon. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has said he will sign the legislation into law. Even the Philadelphia Eagles are vocally supporting the bill.

And now there is movement to bring clean slate to the halls of Congress. At the recent #UnlockingOpportunity conference in Washington, I spoke with Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D)—Delaware’s first woman and first person of color elected to Congress—about her run for office and the prospect of clean legislation at the federal level.

Rebecca Vallas: I’d love to hear from you about your background and why you’ve decided to take on criminal justice reform and re-entry.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester: First, I never ran for office in my life. But in 2014, my husband ruptured his Achilles tendon on a business trip and blood clots went to his heart and lungs and he passed away. It changed everything for me.

I’m typically a very joyful person. Every job I’ve ever had I brought joy to it—from working as a summer youth employment coordinator, to working in the office of then-Congressman Tom Carper as an intern, to being a case worker and working on Social Security Disability and housing and other issues, to being Delaware’s secretary of labor. But when Charles passed, it made me question why am I here. What’s my purpose? And that election year I saw so many people who looked either sad or mad, who had a feeling of loss. Whether they lost their job or home during the housing crisis, or a child to gun violence, it just felt heavy. And the people who were running for office … I was like, “I’m already sad, and y’all are bringing me down.”

One or two encounters with the law should not stop you from supporting yourself or your family.

So, I decided to run. And I was debating Ivy League lawyers. People would comment on blogs that I looked like a deer in the headlights—because I was a deer in the headlights, I was scared to death. But the more stories I heard from people in my state, the more compelled I felt. And I remember one day at a campaign event in the park a guy was talking about the fact that he had gotten out of prison, and no matter how hard he tried he could not find a job. It reminded me of my own family history—my uncles and cousins in Philadelphia who went in and out of the prison system. And so this whole concept of clean slate rang true because your one or two encounters with the law should not stop you from supporting yourself or your family. This issue touches people’s ability to buy a home, to rent an apartment, to just live.

When I heard about Pennsylvania’s legislation, it was a no-brainer for me that this is an issue that cuts across parties. And so we can announce here that I will be introducing federal clean slate legislation.

RV: Thank you. And I’d love to hear from you how a federal clean slate law could remove barriers not just for people with records but for their children and for their families.

LBR: We all know the impact that a parent going through a criminal justice system has on families. An article in The Atlantic magazine is a perfect example. It’s about a woman who was 57 years old, who was a grandmother. This charge had been following her for 38 years and stopping her from getting a job. But this legislation is saying it shouldn’t be hard for you to clean your record when you’ve served your time, some time has gone by, and it was a nonviolent offense. Anything that gets rid of the barriers for people to live, go to school, have a job, rent or own a home, that’s the goal of this legislation is to clean the slate so that you can live your life.

RV: What are the chances of seeing something actually move through Congress?

LBR: We can at least try to find common ground. I already have in mind a [Congressperson] who’s got a criminal justice background, who will probably seem way to the other political extreme of me, but who can also provide credibility. I believe that we can get this done—and it doesn’t even cost money. The fact that it could possibly save money and help the economy and help people’s lives I think makes it a win-win-win.

I also want to leave everyone with a message of encouragement. That no matter what you see swirling around you, stay focused. I was a dancer as a kid, and we’d do pirouettes. And people would say, “How can you spin and not fall?” It’s because you would focus on one spot, even though everything is spinning around you. We’re gonna make it through all of this swirl.

This interview also aired on Off-Kilter as part of a complete episode on October 27. It was edited for length and clarity.



The Most Horrifying Provisions Hidden in the House Republican Tax Plan

Yesterday, House Republicans released their tax plan, finally providing long-awaited details on what they really mean when they promise “tax reform.” While they billed it as a middle-class tax cut, the new legislation is filled with gifts for wealthy corporations and the richest Americans. Meanwhile, middle-class and working families would at best get scraps—and in many cases, see their taxes increase.

Many of the most extreme tax increases come in the form of eliminated tax credits or deductions buried deep in the text of the bill—and ignored by lawmakers and the media. With tax increases affecting groups ranging from seniors and people with disabilities, to families facing costly medical bills, to immigrant children, to people with student loans—to name just a few—the bill is a virtual laundry list of tax increases on populations who are often struggling to make ends meet.

Here are eight of the most horrifying provisions buried in the tax plan.

1. It raises taxes for people with student loans

Americans now owe more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt—nearly double all credit card debt. The average monthly payment is up to $351 (or more than $4,200 a year) for borrowers between the ages of 20 and 30—a large chunk of income for young Americans.

Thankfully, under current law, borrowers can deduct up to $2,500 of the interest on these loans per year, which helped more than 12 million Americans in 2015. But the House tax plan eliminates that deduction. If the plan passes, the average borrower will see their taxes go up by $275 each year just on student loan interest. And a borrower who pays the full $2,500 in interest would see their taxes go up even more—by a whopping $625.

Americans owe more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt—nearly double all credit card debt

2. It raises taxes on people facing high medical expenses

Under current law, people are able to deduct medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of their income for the year. This benefits thousands of people facing serious illnesses or with long-term care needs—and gives them some financial relief in the face of high medical bills.

But the House Republican plan eliminates that deduction, too. This will hit people with disabilities as well as elderly nursing home residents particularly hard, as they often pay tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs for long-term care. Much like their earlier plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the change is also aimed directly at states that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, where residents are more likely to be uninsured and have higher medical costs.

3. It ends a tax credit that helps parents adopt

For thousands of adoptive parents, adoption is only possible because of the adoption tax credit, which helps parents recoup up to $13,000 of the cost of adoption. House Republicans would eliminate the adoption tax credit, making it harder for countless would-be parents to have children. There are more than 100,000 children in U.S. foster care today (not to mention millions more orphaned or abandoned), and eliminating the credit would make it significantly harder for them to find a permanent home.

4. It makes disability accessibility more expensive for small businesses

Under current law, small businesses can claim a tax credit to offset 50 percent of the cost of accessibility for people with disabilities for expenses between $250 and $10,250. But the House GOP tax bill would eliminate that tax credit, effectively raising taxes on small businesses trying to make sure their doors are open to people with disabilities. This comes as legislation currently pending in the House—misleadingly titled the “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017”—would gut the very part of the Americans with Disabilities Act that requires public places to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities.

5. It eliminates a tax credit that spurs investment in poor communities

Trump has repeatedly promised to save and bring back jobs in communities left behind. But the House Republican tax bill would eliminate a tax credit that encourages businesses to invest in hard-hit rural and urban areas. Investors who qualify for the New Markets Tax Credit get a tax credit to partially offset their investments in distressed communities where the poverty rate is 20 percent or higher. The vast majority of the tax credit’s funding has benefited communities with unemployment rates more than 1.5 times the national average and/or poverty rates of at least 30 percent.

6. It allows churches to be manipulated for political purposes

Under current law, 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations—including churches—are prohibited from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Trump has long made known his desire to repeal this policy, known as the Johnson Amendment—as far back as the early 2000s, as well as throughout his presidential campaign—claiming it violates churches’ First Amendment rights. And hidden in the House GOP tax bill is a provision that would make good on Trump’s promise, despite the fact that nearly 80 percent of Americans say they do not support political endorsements in church. As a letter from more than 4,000 faith leaders opposing this change states: “Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines.”

Buried in House Republicans’ tax bill is their latest effort to advance the GOP’s anti-choice agenda

7. It takes away critical income from immigrant families with kids

While House Republicans are busy patting themselves on the back for including modest enhancements to the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in their tax bill, they have changed the credit so that many immigrant families with citizen children will not be able to receive it. The bill would require all filers to provide a Social Security number, instead of an Individual Tax Identification Number, which immigrant workers with qualifying citizen children can currently use to claim the credit. According to the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, more than 5.1 million children of immigrant parents would lose access to the CTC under this provision.

8. It gives fetuses legal status as people

Buried in House Republicans’ tax bill is their latest effort to advance the GOP’s anti-choice agenda. Specifically, they use a provision in the bill that would allow parents to buy 529 college savings plans for unborn children as a smoke screen to, yet again, try to give fetuses legal status as people. The provision goes out of its way to define unborn child as a “child in utero … a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.” This comes on the heels of Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services’ strategic plan draft released last month, which bent over backwards to define life as beginning at conception.


First Person

The House Tax Plan Would Make It Impossible For Me to Have Kids

Yesterday, Congressional Republicans released their new tax plan. The New York Times picked it up early, with a headline announcing that it focuses on “cutting corporate and middle-class taxes.” When I saw it, I couldn’t help myself—I actually thought, “Hey, I’m middle-class.” So I clicked the link.

That brief moment of optimism—the hope that maybe, just maybe, House Republicans had done something that would help me—didn’t last long. Turns out they aren’t particularly worried about this middle-class lady. The dreams I’ve held closest to me—the ones I want so desperately that I can barely even admit them to myself—could be completely dashed by this plan.

My wife doesn’t dream in secret like I do. She’s pretty transparent. And what she wants, more than anything, is to be a parent.

Deep down, she’s a dad. She thinks instructions are for quitters, she plays air guitar while she dances, and she laughs—hard—at her own jokes. She asks me every time she puts on sunglasses if she looks “like a cool kid,” and I once watched her use finger guns as an earnest form of praise for someone who had just finished a particularly difficult parking job. (It was on our wedding day. I married her anyway.)

I always thought of her weird-dad behavior as an eccentricity. It’s sweet that she manages our budget for fun, that she wants to be the house with the best candy on Halloween, and that she’ll spend an entire dinner party trying to hang a friend’s bike rack. But this year, something started to shift. She started to really want a baby to go with all of those paternal affectations.

At first she’d just make faces at little kids that were staring her down. Then she started to get wistful any time she saw a baby with unruly hair. And earlier this week, she came home from the grocery store yelling that we needed to move because our house barely got any trick-or-treaters, but there were dozens of little kids in costumes just two blocks up.

I always knew in the back of my mind that this was going to happen. I was ambivalent about kids, but I could tell—even when she swore it wasn’t true—that my wife needs to be a parent. So, we started to factor those imaginary future kids into our choices. We bought a little house with too many bedrooms in a good school district. We got a car with extra room in the back, and a dog with a particular soft spot for babies.

This summer, I started to feel it, too. It snuck up on me—I was sitting on my sofa, laptop in my lap, and I suddenly found myself wishing that there was a sleeping infant on my chest. I texted my wife and told her I was ready to adopt.

That’s just the first step in a years-long process. When you’re queer, having a baby is complicated. Just finding one—whether you’re looking for raw ingredients or a finished product—is extremely expensive.  But there are actually breaks written into the tax code that help us out: little gifts from a government that has spent generations marginalizing families like ours. Need in vitro fertilization to conceive with your donor sperm? You can deduct some of the medical expenses from your tax bill. Plan to adopt? There’s a sizable credit to make it affordable.

The deductions and credits that would have made it possible for me to have a child? They’re gone.

Except, now there isn’t. The House Republican tax plan is filled with delicious treats for the wealthy: repealing the estate tax, cutting corporate tax rates, and notching down the top income tax rate. And to help pay for it, Congressional Republicans have cobbled together a list of credits to eliminate so obscenely cruel it would make Ayn Rand blush. The credits for individuals over 65 or who are retired on disability are gone, and the deduction for teachers—the one that helped me afford all the pencils and notebooks I bought for my students when I worked in public schools—has vanished. The deduction for paying high local taxes—like the ones my wife and I pay in order to live in that good school district—has been whittled away.

And the deductions and credits that would have made it possible for me to afford having a child? They’re gone, too.

Without those deductions and credits, my wife and I won’t be able to have children. We cannot afford the upfront cost of adopting or conceiving, combined with the costs of preparing to bring a child into our home and the child care we would need for the next several years. We’ve done the math—by the time we scrape the money together, we’ll be too old for most adoption agencies to consider us and it’s unlikely we’ll be able to conceive.

And so, with a single tax bill, House Republicans have denied the love of my life the chance to have the family she desperately wants. And they’ve done it so the loves of their lives—corporations and the ultra-rich—can have something they don’t even need.