Friday, January 5, 2018

(A big Thank You to the JP Gazette and Sandra Story
 for permission to reprint this article.)
JP Observer: Speech is money: It’s OK to voice opinions to other legislators in D.C.
December 22, 2017
A record-breaking number of people contacted Washington with their opinions during the first two months this year, according to an article in the March 6 New Yorker.
“Members of Congress claim that, Senate-wide, the call volume for the week of Jan. 30, 2017, more than doubled the previous record; on average, during that week, the Senate got 1.5 million calls a day,” the article reported. “Three of those days—Jan. 31, Feb. 1, and Feb. 2—were the busiest in the history of the Capitol switchboard.”
Analysts say advocacy groups urge members to contact Congress, but people seem to be organically driven by the news to express themselves these days, as well.

“Contact your senator/representative right away and urge them to [fill in the blank],” is a common request. Since Republican Donald Trump became president last January accompanied by a majority Republican House and Senate, many liberal solicitations urge people to express their dislike of a piece of legislation, regulation, or nominee.
Up to now, it has been commonly accepted by pretty much everyone that people should only contact their own senators (two per state) and representative (one from the district where the person lives) about national issues.
It’s strangely disappointing for those of us in Jamaica Plain to hear all the ways the tax bill is terrible, for example, and then be exhorted to call our federal elected officials. At first, it’s like, “Yeah I’m going to do that! This bill needs to be defeated!”
Then we remember, all three of our federal legislators have said they hate the tax bill and all the other radical Trump proposals. They may have already even voted against them, too. Darn. Nobody for us to contact after all, except to thank our local senators and representative one more time.
It happens to liberals here and in other blue states and cities again and again. Probably to conservatives in conservative states, too.
Speaking at a benefit for Health Law Advocates in Boston in 2015, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed out the positive voting record of Massachusetts Congress people on health care issues. She encouraged people to contact friends and relatives in other states to ask them to talk to their federal elected representatives about important issues.
Even that can be frustrating when we realize we don’t have friends or relatives in red states.
Modern information technology and social media are bringing people of different regions of this country together nowadays like never before. Decisions made at the federal level affect millions of us, and everyone is more aware of that. Jamaica Plain people love to discuss, learn about, and take action on nation issues.
The informal prohibition against contacting federal legislators in other parts of the country feels outdated, clumsy and unnatural, and needs to be ignored.
Earlier this month I was calling Republicans identified as possibly open to voting no on the tax bill. I very politely suggested that the bill was too radical and gave just a couple of brief examples usually on voice mail, but occasionally to a staff person.
I came across several ways the officials in Washington D.C. deal with the location of their callers.
Many senators and representatives are subtle, since there are no official rules. A recording or person simply asks callers who want to express their opinions to leave their ZIP Code or address. The intimidating implication is that you should say nothing and hang up if you don’t have a “correct” one.
Some recordings and statements are more direct. The voice of Sen. Todd Young of Indiana says, “Hoosiers wishing to leave their thoughts or opinions on legislation or a confirmation in the US Senate, press one.” No choice was offered for non-Hoosiers.
A recording by a senator from Oregon says he would like to hear from “Oregonians.”
People who sounded like young staff assistants or interns answered the phone at three representatives’ offices.
A staffer at one office asked me for my ZIP Code and then said, “Thank you for calling.” I asked, “Are you going to pass on my comment?” He said snippily, “Thank you for calling.”
So I was happily surprised when aides in two other offices asked my ZIP Code at the end of the call, but then said firmly and somewhat enthusiastically, it seemed, “I will pass on what you said to the representative.”
An inexplicable recording of several verses of “Hail to the Chief” played while I was on hold for staff of one senator. It was then I had an epiphany. And it welled up from a Citizens United source, of all places. (Maybe it was the influence of all the Republicans I was calling.)
Money is speech.
And it occurred to me that all of us should feel free to call any federal elected official we see fit, and not just because their decisions affect all of us, which is the best reason. And not just so they can hear from regular US people who might have a fresh view on issues, though that’s good, too.
As long as elected officials take campaign contributions from outside their districts, those officials can and should consider thoughts and opinions from people around the country, too.
If money gets treated the same as speech, (US Supreme Court, Jan. 2010) then speech has to be treated the same as money.
I am about to make some more calls to Republicans from around the country, asking them to vote no on the tax bill that came out of the conference committee. I plan to proudly say I am a Bay Stater this time. (I may also tell them who a Bay Stater is, since most people don’t know, I read recently.)
Then, for the ones who limit whose opinions they want to hear to people in their districts, I will remind them of those donations.
None of us should feel intimidated about calling any elected legislator’s office in Washington. Everyone should be encouraged to contact senators and representatives of either party and any state in the US in the future.
There will be more important, heinous bills, regulations and appointments to oppose, no doubt. And maybe, if 2018 elections make a positive difference, there will be those we want to support.

Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

PPUF encourages your attendance at the wonderful Lift the Cap on Kids Cap and Mittens Event to be held at the MA State House Members Lounge on Thursday, October 26, 2017 from 11:30am-12:30pm.  This worthy event brings into sharp relief the burdensome ‘Family Cap’, which imposes a strict reduction in welfare benefits for the most vulnerable, children. Join us in protesting this severe restriction fortified with caps and mittens to benefit low-income families and to ‘lift the cap’ on the sweetest among us!!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Book Review: Evicted by Matthew Desmond
(Review by Margaret Rhodes)

In his important, recent book, Evicted, Matthew Desmond provides a devastating appraisal of the U.S. housing crisis.  He follows eight families in Milwaukee as they move from one dilapidated apartment to the next, and then finally to homelessness. On average, tenants spend 60 or 70 percent of their income on housing, with little leftover for other expenses.  Inevitably they fall behind on rent, often resulting in an eviction.  After an eviction, landlords are less willing to accept tenants, forcing them into worse neighborhoods where landlords are less choosy and apartments in worse repair. Families find it even harder, with fewer landlords accepting children. Desmond found that one in eight renters in Milwaukee experienced at least one forced move.

The personal stories  Desmond relates are filled with misfortune, often stretching back generations, misfortune fueled by poverty.  Through the stories Desmond ably conveys the stress of facing homelessness and hunger, the sadness of not being able to give your children what they need, as well as the incredible resilience and often resourcefulness that his subjects demonstrate. As Desmond points out in the conclusion, home gives us our sense of safety and well-being. For most of us in stable housing, it is a refuge from the rebuffs of society. It is where we find community, have time with our children, heal from the rebuffs of daily life.  When your housing keeps changing or is taken from you, it is a traumatic experience, sometimes resulting in your furniture being piled on a sidewalk outside. It can mean sudden changes in your children’s schooling, food stamps not being sent to the correct address,  and  of the community supports that are found in a stable neighborhood.

We already know these stories, but Desmond focuses our attention on how the private housing market, with its often exploitative rents, has become a key factor in families’ slide into extreme poverty. At times he argues that it is the central cause: he states that the problems endemic to poverty “…stem from the lack of affordable housing in our cities.” (333) This overstates what he has shown, but still he is making an important point, backed up by the eight tenants he follows and the statistical evidence he presents.

Equally important, although he paints a grim picture of eviction, he does not view the problem as hopeless. He argues in the conclusion that the suffering he has pictured throughout the book is unnecessary.. One of the biggest problems to a solution, according to Desmond, is the exploitative rental practices in the private housing market. Apartment prices are often increased in areas where tenants have little choice, and since housing is scarce in many cities, landlords can charge what they want. Desmond suggests that the solution does not reside in more public housing, but in making available a housing voucher for any poor family. He suggests ways to monitor its use, so that neither tenant nor landlord can use it exploitatively. He also argues for legal representation for any poor tenant facing eviction.  A legal program in the South Bronx for poor families that ran from 2005-8 prevented eviction in 86% of the cases (1300 altogether.) It cost $450.000. but saved the city more than $700,000 in estimated shelter costs.. Solutions are possible, but they depend on our acceptance of housing as a basic right and a public willingness to bear the cost.
In his final section, “About this project,” Desmond addresses some of the problems and challenges of doing this sort of ethnographic work. He raises the question of his exploitation of those he has interviewed, though he does not address it fully, beyond expressing his gratitude and guilt and detailing a few ways he tried to help those whose lives he was documenting.  He does not discuss the ethical issues he confronted, leaving me wondering about them. What sort of permission did he obtain from each of them? Did he show what he had written to them before he published it? What sort of responsibility does he feel towards them now? I wish he had said more in answer to these questions.

The book is an important one, and his affection for those he interviewed shines through, as well as his outrage that so many in our society are forced to live this way. Read it. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Defending Medicaid:  A National Village

PPUF  has been part of a National Coalition to Fight the $8 Billion in Medicaid cuts in the Congressional Health Care bill since last January.  The bill would change Medicaid into a state block grant much like the Welfare Block grant in 1996.  By 2026 Medicaid would be swiftly disappearing as an entitlement program as Welfare has by now virtually disappeared.(See PPUF video, the danger of Block Grants

 Because cuts to Medicaid will hurt poor people. the elderly and disabled, PPUF has been attending frequent webinars with The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities CBPP to coordinate national strategy based on the proposed health care bill.  Protests have been organized around the country especially at town hall meetings.  

Since Massachusetts has a solid delegation of Democrats against the Repeal and Replace Bill, we have supported our Republican Governor Charlie Baker on his work in the National Governors Association against this bill.  

We have contacted Republican Governors and Senators in States that would lose the most in Medicaid coverage.  These states voted for Donald Trump.  Millions of Trump's voters would lose their Medicaid coverage.  

The strategy was to talk about that ALL states would be devastated by these catastrophic cuts.  It was a strategy that has so far kept congress from completing it's passage when it was expected to be finished in January.  There is one more possible chance of a vote in the Senate this week.  Whatever the outcome there are many back-up strategies to delay the bill until the August recess.