Pathways for Unmotivated People Become Useless Pathways

“Pathways” is the popular word today for fixing broken, adolescent, and unsuccessful people.

Here are a few examples. At the federal level there are the Pathways out of Poverty Act, the National Institutes of Health Pathways to Prevention program, and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention Pathways courses. At the state level there are Governor Phil Bryant’s Mississippi Works Smart Start Career Pathway, the Mississippi Department of Education High School Graduation Pathways, and the Mississippi Community College Board’s Academic Pathways and Career Pathways. Outside of government there are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Pathways for Student Success, the Boy Scouts of America Pathway to Adventure Council, and numerous addiction and homeless programs named Pathways. 

We have so many intended-to-help, positive pathways, yet we have so many not following them. They follow other, destructive pathways – pathways to gang membership and crime, pathways to drug and alcohol addiction, pathways to sexual predation and abuse, pathways to mental illness and disorder, pathways to homelessness and poverty, etc.

It seems we have far more pathways to fix people than in past generations, as well as far more people who need fixing.

Therein lies one of our dilemmas. We have become terrific at analyzing symptoms and creating pathways to treat them, but mediocre at eliminating the destructive pathways that spread the symptoms. It’s like treating small pox but not wiping it out.

Indeed, the sorry fact is our society now embraces much of what confounds us, from entertainment media (movies, TV, Internet, magazines, novels, etc.) that glamorizes gangs, drugs, sex, and anti-social behavior, to politicians who revel in stressful discord rather than sensible solutions, to an economy that idolizes profit with little concern for the consequences – harmful behaviors, rampant layoffs, and income inequality.

In so many ways we no longer condemn but celebrate that which leads us down destructive pathways. And we do this in the name of freedom, e.g. free speech, free markets, and freedom of choice. Never has freedom been so miscast!

If we cannot wipe out destructive pathways, the only alternative is to get broken, adolescent, and unsuccessful people to choose positive pathways.

But, just getting folks to show up is often a problem, revealing our other dilemma. Too many lack the motivation to try, much less stick with the positive pathways available to them. That old saying “where there is a will, there is a way,” must have a corollary that says “where there is no will, there is no way.”

If we cannot get people to turn toward positive pathways and away from destructive pathways, then our positive pathways become useless pathways.

Still, there are proven methods to help with motivation. Providing more year-round stable, caring, educational environments for young children, more outreach and intensive case management for at-risk youth and adults, and creating more living wage jobs for at-risk individuals are examples. There are more.

Investing in methods that help motivate people to choose positive pathways is just as important as providing them those pathways.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Are Big Money Tax Policies Best for Mississippi?

As tax collections continue to falter, threatening more mid-year budget cuts, our legislative leaders scurry to shore up the brilliance of their tax cut agenda.

They brought in an “outside expert” to say they’re on the right track.

Nicole Kaeding, an economist with the Tax Foundation, told them that adding more consumption taxes and reducing corporate taxes is the right way to go. In particular, she recommended charging sales taxes on services, such as those provided by doctors and lawyers, eliminating sales tax holidays, and upping gas taxes. She called corporate taxes the “most harmful” for growth.

Kaeding’s comments were predictable given her career in organizations sponsored by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers. Owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the U.S., the brothers have built a huge network of libertarian and conservative think tanks and political organizations to influence government policy and elections. Among these are the Cato Institute and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation that Kaeding worked for before joining the Tax Foundation. Both organizations promote the Koch brothers’ crusade to minimize taxes on the wealthy and eliminate corporate taxes. At the Tax Foundation Kaeding’s focus is making state tax codes more favorable to businesses.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn applauded Kaeding: “I think you have confirmed and affirmed many of the decisions we’ve made,” the Clarion-Ledger reported. “Reducing the corporate tax burden is a path toward economic growth and stability.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves liked her focus: “I believe our goal should be to make Mississippi the most competitive place in America to invest capital and to provide for more and better paying jobs,” the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.

Perhaps state leaders will pause and reflect on Kaeding’s data. It showed Mississippi in 2012 (before pending tax cuts) was already highly competitive among neighboring states. Mississippi’s Business Tax Climate ranked noticeably better than Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Kaeding’s slide on Corporate Income Tax rates showed Mississippi ranked among the lowest nationally, and better than all neighboring states.

If tax competitiveness is the real key to growth, then Mississippi should already be outperforming our neighbors. We’re not.

Legislators should hear presentations from economists not so indoctrinated into big money tax policies. They might find that Mississippi’s mix of poor people, hard-working middle-income families, and small businesses would fare better with a fair mix of consumption, income, and business taxes.

Indeed, the same day Kaeding spoke, Kiplinger ranked Mississippi 9th on its tax-friendly states list. Editor Sandra Block said, “Mississippi has always made our tax friendly list.”

Nobody likes taxes. They should be hard to raise. When collections are excessive, they should be cut. And, spending should be controlled so no tax dollar is spent unnecessarily.

That said, the federal tax mess is one thing, our state taxes quite another. Relying on national tax policies promoted by the rich and powerful may not best serve rural Mississippi, particularly when revenue collections are under water and state tax burdens are already competitive.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Federal Overreach Impacts Mississippi

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was passed to eliminate unjustified discrimination based on disability. It provides protections against discrimination to disabled Americans, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

Now, the U.S. Department of Justice is telling Mississippi the ADA provides mentally ill adults an unconstrained constitutional right to community-based services.

Forced school desegregation was implemented by federal courts to eliminate illegal discrimination based on race. States that had passed laws requiring segregation by race have seen their school districts face decades of court ordered desegregation plans.

Now, in Cleveland, Mississippi, the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten a new federal judge to rule that students have a “constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education.”

Both of these cases represent overreach by the federal government, particularly by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Hopefully, seasoned federal judges will see fit to rein in such excess.

In 1999 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “unjustified isolation” of mentally ill individuals “is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability.”  The Olmstead ruling further said the state must provide community-based mental health services when they “can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the entity and the needs of other persons with disabilities.” The key words here are “unjustified” and “resources available.”

Since 2011 the DOJ has been pushing the state to shift its emphasis and funding from state mental institutions to community-based services. While the state has built a system of community-based mental health services, most of its limited funding still goes for institutional care. The Legislature’s PEER Committee has reported several times the state would need to do more to comply with Olmstead.

In August, DOJ filed suit to force the state to comply. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch proclaimed that “Mississippi has failed people with mental illness, violating their civil rights by confining them in isolating institutions.”

Notably, the lawsuit avoids addressing the “resources available” requirement. Instead it argues that since the state provides a lower proportion of funding to community-based care than other states, it is discriminating against the mentally ill.

The Cleveland desegregation case came before U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown who was appointed to the federal bench in 2013 after 16 years practicing commercial law. In her ruling, Judge Brown forthrightly ignored prior orders by distinguished judges William C. Keady, Glen H. Davidson, and L.T. Senter to determine that Cleveland’s freedom of choice school desegregation plans were unconstitutional. She showed great deference to the arguments of DOJ expert Clare Smrekar, but little to the local school district or its expert Christine Rossell, despite guidance by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that she should as much as possible “defer to the District’s plans.”

Should Judge Brown’s new constitutional right take root, many schools and some universities face consolidation. Cleveland has appealed her ruling.

While Mississippi needs to do better in many ways, federal overreach is not the answer.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Mississippi Needs Every Federal Dollar It Can Get

Let’s get real.

Ignore political ideology for a moment.

Mississippi is a poor state, persistently landing near the bottom on income, health, and education rankings. Many families depend heavily on federal benefits to survive. So, too does state government (44% of total spending). Many small businesses’ survival depends heavily on federally subsidized families and government.

Yes, federal spending is out of control. Yes, we have too many people on the dole. But, the reality is we desperately need every federal dollar we can get.

So, how smart was it for Mississippi to cut off SNAP (food stamp) benefits early?

Mississippi chose not to extend a waiver allowing us to pay extra SNAP benefits to unemployed, unmarried, able-bodied adults age 19 to 49 without children. Thousands will lose $190 a month unless they get a job.

Sure these people should be working. But many live in areas where there are no jobs, others where there are no jobs for their limited skill sets. Still others are paroled criminals or former drug users whom employers refuse to hire. For those with no job options, why cut them off early?

“Anything that would reduce or eliminate the means by which some customers pay for their needs couldn’t be anything but harmful,” a spokesman for Vowell’s Cash Saver grocery told Jackson’s WAPT News, adding that up to 75% of his business comes from SNAP users.

Meanwhile, these federal dollars continue to pour into other states.

Yes, a smart Mississippi might leverage every available federal dollar and use the taxes they generate to operate programs that will make future generations and governments far less dependent federal funds.

So, how smart is it for Mississippi not to go after billions of Medicaid dollars?

State officials mired in anti-Obama ideology insist we can’t afford it. But, independent studies show a smart expansion of Medicaid would more than pay for itself, generate thousands of new jobs, and put billions more federal dollars into Mississippi’s economy, not to mention improving healthcare for thousands of low-income, hard working Mississippians and their families.

Kaiser Family Foundation research also shows Medicaid expansion states had higher rates of economic growth than non-expansion states.

Medicaid is a major magnet for federal dollars. This year Mississippi taxpayers are projected to put in $949 million (down from last year) plus $521 million from providers like nursing homes and hospitals to attract $4.6 billion in federal funds. That’s terrific leverage for taxpayers.

A smart Mississippi might implement plans like Republican governors Mike Pence did in Indiana and Asa Hutchinson supports in Arkansas. (Yes, Trump’s Mike Pence. His Healthy Indiana Plan is touted as the nation’s most conservative Medicaid reform plan.)

“We’re not going to leave 220,000 people without some recourse,” said Hutchinson.

“We are expanding access to care for hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers and we’re doing it the Indiana way,” said Pence.

Perhaps it’s time to set aside ideology, like Pence and Hutchinson, and honestly ask if the current Mississippi way is the smart way.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Schools Must Become Environments That Instill Virtue

Teaching children “virtue” is the key to solving poverty, insists a reader and regular critic. That’s how we break the “cycle of dependency,” he said.

To do this, he argues, we must “indoctrinate our children from the early years with a sense of virtue through education.”

Well, “indoctrinate” threw me off. Reminded me of the old Soviet Union brainwashing children as well as my delightful time in boot camp. So, I thought, while it may be permissible for parents to indoctrinate children, that’s hardly the role for schools.

Then, another reader sent me a public policy article published by Wharton University. In it the author wrote about a “set of skills sometimes called non-cognitive skills, sometimes called character strengths, things like grit and curiosity, conscientiousness, perseverance, self-control.”

Hmmm.

These sound a lot like traditional the “cardinal virtues” of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude.

“I remain convinced that these are important capacities for kids to have,” said Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed.

The bestselling writer goes on to say that these virtues are not “the kind of skills that you can teach in school the way you teach math or reading or geography or anything else.” Rather, he says, research suggests “they are more the product of a child’s environment.”

Hmmm.

In the early 1950s, C.S. Lewis postulated that people are born with an innate sense of right from wrong. These days, apparently, that sense must be resuscitated to function in many children.

Parents have the primary responsibility to create environments that instill virtue in children, Tough says, but schools, particularly in high-poverty areas, must take responsibility too.

In his epochal Book of Virtues, William Bennett equates virtue with morality. In the introduction he wrote: “For children to take morality seriously they must be in the presence of adults who take morality seriously.”

Tough said adults can create an environment in the classroom that “makes kids able to persevere, to exercise self-control, to behave in all of the ways that are going to maximize their future opportunities.”

In his book, Tough tells of schools in high poverty areas with innovative programs that motivate children and give them a “real sense of community and connection.” He cites others that give kids “work that is more challenging, more rigorous and more meaningful” which changes their level of motivation. He said some charter schools are able to create “environments for kids that make them feel that sense of connection, feel that sense of challenge.”

Hmmm.

He’s talking about positive motivation. That’s different from the negative motivation “indoctrination” makes me think of. Looks like my perception of indoctrination is too narrow.

So, thanks to my readers for indoctrinating me.

Still and all, it will not be enough for the occasional classroom to create virtuous environments. Research shows children, particularly those for whom virtue is not modeled at home, must be consistently exposed to and expected to exhibit virtuous behavior. Virtuous environments must become whole school endeavors.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Can Trumpism Wean GOP from Big Money Politics?

Anger and frustration drive the voters who will support Donald Trump come whatever.

What I hear:  It’s about time somebody was willing to stick it to those (bad word) in Washington. And to Wall Street too. Those (bad word) in China and Mexico who steal our jobs need a lesson they won’t forget. Those (bad word) in the Middle East better watch out too. We aren’t gonna take their (bad word) any more. And liberals be (bad word), people willing to work and fight for this country are gonna be better off. (Bad words), America is gonna be great again!

It’s a popular message. Lots of folk feel this discontent, Trump folk to a great extent. Certainly, the message is a simple take on an ever more complex world, but it’s howling across America. More of the same from the same old politicians is unacceptable.

Well, not exactly.

Most folk who are going to vote for Trump will also vote to return their current Senators and Representatives to Washington. A handful of Senate and House seats may change, but not many. Now, a handful of changes could shift the power in the Senate, but probably not the gridlock that paralyzes its functions.

No doubt that’s why many Republican officeholders who can’t stand Trump are supporting him. They count on the system, as is, being able to thwart his (bad words) schemes.

Another group of Republicans, however, seems to be looking at all this differently. A recent article in the New York Times labeled these reform minded conservatives “reformocons.”

“These conservatives in think tanks, advocacy groups and the news media — and a few in political office — will be pressing for a new agenda: to update the Reagan-era playbook with an eye to working-class voters without a college education who form the Republican base,” said the Times article. “Ronald Reagan’s notions that policies that benefit the rich and big business lift all incomes now appear outmoded in an era of rising wealth inequality and stagnant wages.”

The article quoted conservative Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah as saying, “What we have going on right now, and Trump’s position in the Republican Party, makes this recalibration that much more important, that much more urgent.”

Hmmm.

“Some within the party,” Lee added, “have been all too willing to wear the label of the Republican Party as being the party of Wall Street, or the party of the top 1 percent.”

The Times article suggests many conservative voters, particularly young ones, are fed up with party leadership “that pays them lip service while ignoring their concerns.”

The article notes that popular conservative voices, like Rush Limbaugh, will be reluctant to turn away from policies that favor big business and billionaires in favor of working class folk. But if Lee and the conservative National Review are really engaged something may emerge.

This is a movement working class Mississippi should watch closely.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Tax Needs vs. Tax Cuts Bedevils Legislators

With legislators looking at taxes, some of us should be worried, some thrilled.

The need to study taxes results from weakening tax revenues along with a sluggish economy, and also because the largest tax cut in state history is pending.

Legislative leaders know they need a consistent, dependable tax base to fund state government. Republican legislators, now a dominant majority, know their voter base hates taxes and wants tax cuts. Where is the balance point – is there one – between these two points of view?

And, then, there is the real question. Who will pay?

So, who’s paying now?

The Institute on Taxation and Policy publishes tax information for all 50 states. As you might expect for Mississippi, the data shows sales taxes are a heavier burden on low income individuals while income taxes are a heavier burden on higher income individuals. Interestingly, when added together, the burdens pretty much balance out. The average sales plus income tax burden on both the lowest and the highest income quintiles was five percent of income in 2015. For the middle three quintiles, it was six percent.

Sales taxes and personal income taxes are the two biggest revenue sources for the state’s general fund at $2.0 billion and $1.74 billion respectively.

Looks like the tandem of sales taxes and personal income taxes is pretty flat and balanced for taxpayers.

Some proposals would upset this.

For example, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said his preference would be to phase out personal income taxes and replace them with consumer taxes and user fees. (The sales tax is our major consumer tax.) Reeves’ proposal would shift much more of the tax burden to low income individuals and much less to higher income individuals. The bottom three quintiles already spend almost five percent of income on sales taxes while the top quintile spends half that. So is Reeves’ proposal about tax equity or something else?

Unless something changes, business taxes will drop substantially. Over the past four years, legislators approved $350 million in tax benefits for businesses. This year they added another $270 million. While these benefits phase in over multiple years, they represent about ten percent of total state general fund revenues based on current figures. That’s significant.

Also passed this year is phased-in elimination of the three percent personal income tax bracket at a cost of $145 million.

Quite frankly, it appears that to keep the tax cuts already promised to businesses and individuals, legislators will have to substantially cut state spending and/or find new sources of revenue.

With regard to new sources, Alabama is looking at a state lottery. Mississippi already has constitutional authority for a lottery, but powerful casino interests keep it off the table.

Most states, and the IRS, tax retirement income (with some exclusions), but not Mississippi. Thus, in addition to pensions, any income that passes through an IRA, 401(k) or other tax deferral vehicle, forever avoids Mississippi income taxes (another plus for high income individuals).

Whatever, our legislators’ studies won’t reveal any easy answers.

 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment