National News Roundup: Week 47 (December 10–16)

By Randall McNair (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

The theme of this past week’s news was largely “brace yourself for raining shoes” — and several boots and a sandal have yet to drop as I write this. This week, keep your eyes peeled for Mueller mayhem, final votes on tax reform, and personnel changes on Capitol Hill. But in the meantime, here’s some info on what has happened already.

Standard standing reminders apply: I am no journalist, though I play one in your inbox or browser, so I’m only summarizing the news within my area of expertise. This week’s news contains some detailed analysis that’s outside my expertise — I’m a lawyer, not an FBI agent! — but all offroad adventures are marked with an asterisk. Okay, I think that’s about it for the disclaimers. Onward to the news!

This week was pretty quiet on the Russia Collusion Investigation front, in part because rumors started circulating that Mueller was about to be fired — but here’s what has happened:

  • Mueller Email Adventures. Over the weekend, the Trump administration accused Mueller of unlawfully obtaining tens of thousands of emails from them because he went through the third-party General Services Administration. But as several legal experts note, public email accounts have no expectation of privacy, and it would be prosecutorial misconduct not to request the records. These claims fuel concern that the President is looking for an excuse to fire Mueller, despite his lack of authority to do so (and his claims to the contrary).
  • The Latest in Harassment Personnel Changes. With last week’s sweeping resignations come new seat-holders, and boy howdy is some of the process looking weird! I think I touched upon this last week, but the governor of Michigan has announced they won’t hold a special election at all, opting to leave John Conyer’s former seat open for an entire year and simply having ordinary elections in 2018. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s governor has appointed Lt Governor Tina Smith to take Al Franken’s seat, but it’s unclear when Franken plans to leave (and her appointment has created chaos in the state’s politics). And it’s completely unclear who is favored to replace Trent Franks, despite a primary election happening in only two months. So it’s been a bit of a wild ride all around.
  • Tax Reform Remix. The tax reform roller coaster appears to be nearing a stop this week, but that’s not a good thing, as it’s currently slowing down right near a gilded circle of hell. Mnuchin released a one-page report this week, which Forbes (rightfully) says he should be ashamed of releasing; among other things, the report confirms that the tax cuts are so expensive that they cannot pay for themselves, and “welfare reform” (i.e. Medicaid and Medicare cuts) will be necessary to pay for it all. That, unfortunately, did not stop Bob Corker and Mark Rubio from eventually hopping aboard for the final version of the bill, leaving the GOP so confident they had the votes that they let McCain take the week off. Though the final version of the tax reform bill does soften a lot of the House version’s harshest edges, it still includes a repeal of the health insurance mandate, and it’s very likely to widen wealth inequality in the country. The Washington Post put out a good comprehensive summary of the final version, which is definitely worth a read (or at least a skim) if you get a chance. But the short version is: If you aren’t rich, it isn’t gonna be great.
  • Federal Judge Withdrawals. Several deeply embarrassing federal judge nominations went the way of the dinosaurs this week! The first to go were Brett “Does it count if my wife practiced law?” Talley and Jeff “I Literally Told You I Illegally Discriminate” Mateer, who were both unceremoniously screened out by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. But after another nominee, Matthew Spenser Peterson, couldn’t answer extremely basic questions about legal procedure — like “I don’t know what a motion in limine is” level of basic — he withdrew his nomination today. Hallelujah, it’s raining turkeys!

And that’s basically the news that was fit to email this week — some good, some bad, most unfinished. It’s like the Big Dig of news weeks! And speaking of unfinished, the next few weeks are going to be a bit wonky here at Roundup Center, because both Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on a Monday. The tentative plan is to issue the Christmas roundup on December 26, and I’ll check in from there on how to handle New Year’s. Until we meet again, happy holidays!

Resist ornament sewn by Benn Kessler

TAX TIME

🎶 Let’s talk about tax, baby, let’s talk about A-M-T, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be, let’s talk aboooout tax. 🎶

The GOP tax bill just passed Congress, it’s on its way to the President’s desk, and America is deeply, deeply confused about what’s in it, what’s not, and how it will impact them.

I’ll confess: I was in the same boat until this week, so I dug through the bill (and multiple summaries) SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO. I didn’t read the entire bill, for what it’s worth. I’m not insane.

Spoiler alert: It’s not as bad/good as you’ve heard, but if you’d like to go ahead and get an idea of how the bill will impact you, check out this collection of tax calculators! They’re easy to use and extremely helpful.

Without further ado, let’s break this thing down.

The Good

  • This bill cuts taxes for just about everyone. Despite public perception to the contrary (more on that later), most (80%+) Americans will see a tax cut.
  • These cuts offer stability in the corporate tax code, because they’re permanent. This stability goes a long way towards encouraging business investment.
  • This bill is better than it could have been. Original drafts included: a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, no expansion for the Child Tax Credit, the designation of tuition waivers as taxable income, and the elimination of the adoption credit. It could have been much, much worse. Congress deserves credit for getting a better bill to the floor.

The Bad

  • This bill is a slap in the face to deficit hawks. By cutting taxes without corresponding fiscal offsets (which is DC-speak for reducing income without reducing the budget), this bill guarantees a significant expansion in the deficit, up to $1.5 trillion.
  • The bill also makes the assumption that the U.S. economy will undergo explosive economic growth to justify the reduction in government income. It might shake out that way. But it’s a gamble.

The Ugly

  • This bill has yet to be sold to the American people. There’s been little effort to make a winsome case for the bill, and the data reflects that. A recent CNN poll found that 55 percent of Americans oppose the bill, 73 percent think the bill will make their lives worse or no different, and 66 percent think the bill will do more to help the wealthy than the middle class.
  • One obvious contributor to negative public perception? The corporate cuts are permanent, but the individual cuts end by 2025. This bill could have been a historic gesture of goodwill to the American taxpayer, but instead it’s a temporary fix that will be the focus of Congressional conflicts for years to come. Why didn’t Congress make these cuts permanent? First, they could only extend the individual cuts so far before the increase to the deficit broke $1.5 trillion. Second, it’s entirely possible that putting the cuts up for renewal/adjustment by 2025 gives Republicans in Congress the perfect opportunity to run on renewing them.

Hot takes aside, what’s actually IN this bill?

  • A BIG reduction in the corporate rate from 35 to 21 percent — The hypothesis here is that cutting the corporate rate will encourage reinvestment and repatriation of assets held overseas by American companies, and encourage more foreign businesses to move to the U.S. It might do those things, but I’m especially skeptical of the repatriation/reinvestment angle. This is a pretty good illustration of why I’m so skeptical:
Awkward.
  • A 3–4 percent cut in personal tax rates — The bracket doesn’t shift much, and it isn’t reduced to four brackets, which was an original goal of leadership. The bottom rate stays at 10 percent, and the top rate is reduced to 37 percent from 39.6 percent.
  • Doubling the standard deduction and Child Tax Credit — The standard deduction increases from from $6,500 for individuals and $13,000 for families to $12,000 and $24,000. The Child Tax Credit increases from $1,000 to $2,000 per child, with $1,400 of the credit fully refundable thanks to Senator Marco Rubio’s insistence on an increase.
  • The medical expense deduction — As someone who’s had a couple of years of high medical expenses, I thought this was a great addition. Under the new law, the deduction kicks in when expenses reach 7.5 percent of income, as opposed to 10%. Here’s the downside: This provision isn’t permanent, and it sunsets by 2020, going back up to 10%.
  • Tax breaks for higher ed (especially grad students) — This was almost a terrifying bill for graduate students, since it originally included a provision to designate tuition waivers as taxable income. You read that right: In addition to that enormous stipend grad students get (note: sarcasm), their tax bills would have counted tuition waivers as income, putting them in a much higher tax bracket. This would have made a huge dent in post-graduate education by putting it financially out of reach for many students.
  • A credit for adoption expenses —This credit already exists, but an early version in the House eliminated it. This is good news, since adoption is a) wonderful and b) incredibly expensive. Keeping the credit is unequivocally the right thing to do.
  • The Johnson amendment — Again, this provision, which prohibits churches and charitable organization from officially endorsing political candidates, already exists. It was eliminated in one early version of the bill, but apparently using a tax bill to repeal this amendment violates procedural rules. Keep an eye out for this to be an issue on future legislation, it’s not going away.

What’s Out?

  • The mortgage interest deduction (sort of)— Currently, homeowners are allowed to deduct the amount of interest they pay on their home loan. The current tax code caps the mortgage interest deduction at $1,000,000 dollars, while this bill sets the cap at $750,000. Look, I get that this seems like a lot. Unfortunately, this effectively prices out folks who live in boom real estate markets and large urban areas, and the reality is that urban professionals are going to be the folks hurt most by this. Not the most sympathetic group, I know. But you don’t have to be rich to be in the market for a home that costs at least that much in many of America’s big cities.
  • Obamacare’s individual mandate— This bill repeals the individual mandate that requires consumers to purchase health insurance or have a penalty levied against them. This piece of the law was designed to force young, healthy consumers into the insurance market to provide a solid foundation for the exchanges. Here’s the deal: market stability aside, I’m firmly of the opinion that the mandate was an unconstitutional maneuver to begin with, and that the Supreme Court got King v. Burwell very, very wrong. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself, but my objections can best be summarized in the conclusions of the late Justice Scalia’s dissent, which reads: “The somersaults of statutory interpretation they have performed (“penalty” means tax, “further [Medicaid] payments to the State” means only incremental Medicaid payments to the State, “established by the State” means not established by the State) will be cited by litigants endlessly, to the confusion of honest jurisprudence. And the cases will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.” I couldn’t have said it better.
  • The state and local tax deduction (sort of) — While an earlier draft of the bill eliminated these deductions entirely, the bill that passed allows Americans to deduct state and local property, sales, and state income taxes up to $10,000. You lucked out, New Jersey.
  • The death tax (sort of)— They couldn’t kill the estate tax, but they did double the exemption. The tax, which hits estates at a rate of FORTY percent, now only applies only to estates valued at $10.98 million for individuals, and $21.96 million for married couples. It won’t impact anyone but a lucky few.

There’s a lot of hyperbole surrounding the bill, from both sides. Depending on who you ask, this tax bill will either bring in an unparalleled period of American prosperity or make Mad Max a reality. Millions will die, or millionaires will be made. The treasury will be looted to fill the coffers of greedy special interests, or the ordinary American taxpayer will see the largest tax cut in the history of the universe.

It’ll be somewhere in between, I promise.

No Cake For You

The GOP’s pivots to so-called “welfare reform,” what’s at stake in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and the latest on tax & more In Case You Missed It. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

Literally at the same time Trump and his colleagues in Congress are working to ram gargantuan tax cuts for billionaires and wealthy corporations through Congress without a single democratic vote, they’re making no secret of how they want to pay for them. By slashing vital programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance, and more. To help us unpack where they’re headed — and what they mean when they use buzzwords like “entitlement reform” and “welfare reform” — Rebecca talks with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA). Next, when David Mullins and Charlie Craig walked into Masterpiece Cakeshop five years ago, they had no idea their search for the perfect wedding cake would take them to the United States Supreme Court. Following oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case earlier this week Rebecca talks with Sharita Gruberg, LGBTQ policy guru at the Center for American Progress about what’s at stake. But first, Jeremy Slevin brings some holiday cheer — plus updates on the tax fight, government shutdown, and more — for another installment of In Case You Missed It.

This week’s guests:

  • Congressman Jim McGovern, of Massachusetts’ 2nd District
  • Sharita Gruberg, Associate Director, LGBT Research and Communications Project

For more on this week’s topics:

  • Read up on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and the consequences of denying service
  • Read Rebecca’s tweetstorm on the USDA letter on nutrition assistance and how it’s the first shoe to drop as the GOP pivots to so-called “welfare reform”
  • Don’t stop calling… trumptaxtoolkit.org has everything you need to tell your member of Congress how you feel about the #GOPTaxScam

This program aired on December 8th, 2017

Transcript of show:

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. This week the GOP sets its sights on so-called welfare reform, I talk with Congressman Jim McGovern about what that means. Next, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cake Shop case this week. I think with Sharita Gruberg of the Center for American Progress about what’s at stake there depending on how the case. But first, what’s that I hear?

[Wham’s “Last Christmas” PLAYS]

[LAUGHTER]

JEREMY SLEVIN: You can’t say it before I play the music!

VALLAS: Well I did. It’s Jeremy, it’s Jeremy Slevin and he’s brought Christmas into the radio studio.

[LAUGHTER]

SLEVIN: It’s like a middle school plays. “What’s that I hear?” And then the music queues.

[LAUGHTER]

VALLAS: Well I heard it coming down the hall from a distance.

SLEVIN: Now I play it longer because of that.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

VALLAS: Jeremy, but thank you for that. I really needed that after this particular week. Jeremy why are you [LAUGHTER]

SLEVIN: Ok, Ok, this is the real fade.

[MUSIC STOPS]

VALLAS: Why are you in such a Christmas mood, Jeremy?

SLEVIN: I don’t, whoa, I can’t hear anything but I’ll keep talking. [LAUGHTER] I think it’s just delirium from this tax fight.

[LAUGHTER]

VALLAS: I think that’s fair.

SLEVIN: It’s exhausting.

VALLAS: It’s a good thing it’s Friday.

SLEVIN: It’s Friday, I need something to cheer me up and so why not listen to “Last Christmas” by Wham? The great ’80s hit.

VALLAS: Well and I hope we listened to just a short enough period of it to be within our rights, legally. Anyway so Jeremy,

[MUSIC PLAYS VERY BRIEFLY THEN STOPS]

[LAUGHTER]

SLEVIN: Ok, I’m done let’s talk.

VALLAS: Jeremy needs a vacation everyone. Don’t worry he’s going to get one, I promise.

SLEVIN: [INAUDIBLE] more week.

VALLAS: As his boss. So you’re fried, I’m fried, America’s fried and it’s all because the Republican congressional group of folks as it is traditionally called.

SLEVIN: I think that’s the official name.

VALLAS: It’s the technical term. They are continuing to try to ram through gargantuan tax cuts for the wealthy, for corporations without a single hearing or Democratic vote for that matter. And folks are clamoring; they all want to know what’s the latest? There’s been a lot of quiet in the media when it comes to the tax fight. What’s going on, are they still trying to —

SLEVIN: Which is a shame because I think now is the most important time if ever there was one to stop this. So last Friday, last Christmas, last Friday the Senate actually it was Saturday morning because it was 2:31 am, the Senate passed this tax bill. As many people know, it was basically written on pencil, there were major changes last minute. Many members didn’t know what they were voting for. It now has to be resolved between both chambers. So either the House can pass the Senate bill.

VALLAS: Something called conference.

SLEVIN: Yes, either the House can pass the Senate bill and that’s it. But since there are so many mistakes and screw-ups in the Senate bill that’s not going to happen. So what they’re doing is they set up a conference committee to negotiate the differences between the bills which means that both chambers of congress have to vote on this again and if we know anything the Senate, we were two votes away from killing it which means that both chambers of congress have to vote on this again and if we know anything, the Senate we were two votes away from killing it in the House we were 11 votes away from killing it which is pretty close in a chamber of 435 members.

VALLAS: And that’s of the Republican group of wait what did I call it before I can’t even remember the technical term I made up.

SLEVIN: I don’t even know the members of the congressional —

VALLAS: Sorry, continue.

[LAUGHTER]

SLEVIN: So this is the week. They are in crunch time right now and people are now learning ironically after —

VALLAS: I have to say I love how surprised a lot of people have been about how many mistakes are actually in the bill. There have been headlines that literally have been like “Breaking: Errors in Bill Handwritten in Crayon in Middle of Night”. Like literally, that’s the news right now.

SLEVIN: Well that’s what happens when you pass it at 2:30 AM and you’re literally writing in the margins. I mean —

VALLAS: And no one has had a chance to read it.

SLEVIN: Right. Set aside the substance for a second like the sheer damage this does to our democratic process, never has a major piece of legislation been rammed through like this. Maybe the repeal of the Affordable Care Act but with zero hearings and basically totally re-written on the fly the night it was passed.

VALLAS: So take us to what’s next. You mentioned that there’s either got to be conference or the chambers have to pass the same bill. We’re hearing it’s likely to be conference now the house has appointed it’s so called conferees for that process. The members of the House who are actually going to participate in the conference committee. When are we expecting to hear something out of that? What are the next steps if they move forward along those lines?

SLEVIN: So that’s the $1.5 trillion question.

VALLAS: Indeed it is.

SLEVIN: So they, the conferees are meeting as we speak. They’re meeting into the weekend. It’s operating on a full partisan process to know when, surprise, Democrats are having little say in it. They could have a deal any day. So they could have a deal this weekend and vote next week. The very latest we think would be the end of next week. So basically we have a week to raise hell. There was a great video this morning of a man with ALS, a lawyer and activist on the plane with Jeff Flake going back to Arizona who confronted Jeff Flake and they had a basically 11 minute back and forth. He went through ever provision of the bill in detail and questioned Jeff Flake on it.

VALLAS: And got it all on video.

SLEVIN: And got it all on video and it’s like, I hate to say going viral but it’s everywhere.

VALLAS: It’s also birthed one of the best hashtags in the history of Twitter, wait for it, wait for it, #FlakesOnAPlane. That’s right, that’s what it is. No but in all seriousness, the videos are amazing. It’s a whole 8 part video series totally worth watching because this guy who is incredibly informed as Jeremy said is a lawyer and an activist but also someone who himself would be personally devastated by this bill and particularly the health care components of it. He literally grills Jeff Flake to say like do you even know what’s in this bill and what this is going to do to people?

SLEVIN: Yeah. I think it would be helpful because as we mentioned, people are just learning what’s in the Senate bill.

VALLAS: Let’s do a little recap.

SLEVIN: Yeah.

VALLAS: Reminds us, Jeremy.

SLEVIN: So to remind people of the bare bones of this bill which didn’t change dramatically. It is a giant, giant, tax cut for corporations. It brings the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. That is the bulk of this bill. The remainder of the bill collapses tax rates and includes some goodies for really rich people like peeling back the estate tax for people with five and a half million dollars or more in their estate value. Rolling back the alternative minimum tax, which makes sure millionaires pay a minimum amount of taxes.

VALLAS: Millionaires like Trump.

SLEVIN: Yeah so what we found out after the Senate bill passed is that they stuffed all sorts of like lobbyist goodies in at the last minute.

VALLAS: Oh you left out one other piece, sorry, that people need to know about the bill if we’re recapping. It also raises taxes on about 83 million middle class families. Right so Trump can call it a Christmas gift for the middle class all he wants but queue the music.

SLEVIN: Whoa, whoa, I gotta go to Spotify.

VALLAS: Oh sorry.

[Wham’s “Last Christmas” PLAYS]

But this, much as Trump says this is what you’re getting from this tax bill, middle class, this is not what you’re getting. Instead you’re getting — Cut the music, Jeremy.

SLEVIN: You want me to go to the chorus?

VALLAS: Well I was going to say instead you’re getting and I was going to be like some kind of horrible silence.

[MUSIC STOPS]

Or tax increases, anyway! So continue with your recap.

SLEVIN: Yes, all the individual provisions expire, raising taxes on millions. So what happened last minute in the senate is they added a, a last minute gift for Trump himself. Basically the loophole that benefits Trump which allows real estate companies to get additional loopholes on their taxes. They added a $2 million additional tax break for him. They also added an oil and gas loophole at the last minute put in by John Cornyn. Rand Paul got a carve out for car dealerships that limits their interest deductibility. Rand Paul, also a big recipient of donations from car dealerships. They put in a loophole for cruise ships at the last minute. It allows cruise ship companies to pay almost no taxes to the U.S. because most of them are based in Panama. And lastly Ted Cruz, our great conservative warrior added a provision that basically allowed people to put their private school savings into tax free account, which mainly benefits ultra-wealthy families who send their kinds to private schools and of course the bill already limits state and local tax deductions, really hurting the public education systems. So we’re seeing increasing incentives to shift public funding and public wealth into the hands of wealthy people.

VALLAS: And one thing that has not changed about this bill in the slightest is how they want to pay for it of course which is by jacking up the deficit to the tune of about $1.5 trillion, why Jeremy said this was the $1.5 trillion question. I see what you did there. And meanwhile and this is part of what has sort of been, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, maybe I shouldn’t be but I am. One thing that’s been surprising to me in the past several days has been how brazen so many Republicans have been about what comes next to them. And that’s, I mean literally it’s like they already have their hands in the piggy bank saying and we’re going to cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and nutrition assistance and all these other things that we knew they wanted to cut because of their budgets but they’re literally coming right out and saying it. We’ll talk more about that later in the show with Congressman Jim McGovern. But Jeremy, what can people be doing right now since this moment is critical as you said. It’s not the, it’s always hard when there’s no vote in sight, there’s no specific action that Congress is about to take that’s clear. People kind of wonder what is it I should be doing? Should I be doing anything? What’s the answer there?

SLEVIN: So people should be continuing to call their members of Congress, to put any pressure on their members of congress. We have two resources you can go to. One is Trump tax tool kit, that’s at Trumptaxtoolkit.org, where there’s a list of the key members who will stop this bill. And there’s also a number to call, your member if that member is not on that list. We recommend that people go there to stop this bill. Another resource is resistancenearme.org which has a map of all of the events across the country so if people want to take direct action at their member offices they can do so. This is a critical moment. And I think we’re seeing how unpopular this is. A recent poll came out again that finds it in the 30s, it’s the most unpopular piece of major legislation in modern history. And members are rational hopefully and will act if they feel the heat.

VALLAS: And I want to give out a plug as well to a really cool tool that our friends at the Indivisible team have created which is for folks, I mean I get the question on twitter all the time. I live in a blue state or my member of congress or my senator; those people are Democrats. What do I do? Should I be calling them? Well the answer is number one yes you should be calling them because even though Democrats have stood strong and held the line and said no to these bills both in the House and the Senate, not a single Democratic vote for either of these bills. These members still need to be hearing from folks about how they feel. It’s important that they be hearing from their constituents but meanwhile, at Indivisible.org you can also find a blue state calling tool which actually enables you to make calls to folks in red states to help educate them, help them in turn education their members of congress about how they feel. So Indivisible.org, shout out for their great blue state call tool.

So Jeremy, other stuff going on this week, we haven’t had a true in case you missed it in a while. I feel like maybe that Christmas music gets to be our in case you missed it music. But a lot of talk about a government shutdown, which just got averted on Thursday.

SLEVIN: I think there are two, obviously as they’re trying to ram through tax cuts for millionaires they’re also trying to keep the government open and having a hard time doing it. So just hours ago, just yesterday they finally passed a bill that keeps the government open for two weeks. And Republicans wanted to do that so they could have time to do tax reform. The government was set to shut down at midnight tonight, Friday night. So now they bought themselves two weeks more time. Of course the question is what are Democrats going to get in order to support this bill. Republicans historically have not been able to get right wing Tea Party freedom caucus members to support any bill virtually that keeps the government open because they demand gigantic cuts to government spending. And Democrats are rightly saying that if you’re going to, as the majority party that controls both houses of congress and the presidency. If you’re going to ask us to support this bill then you’re going to need not kick thousands of DREAMers out of the country who came here as children. You’re going to need to fund the government at adequate levels. So this showdown was averted this week and is now going to bump up right against Christmas. So the potential good news is we could have a real DREAM Act finally to protect people who came here as children. We could get maybe some real funding for vital programs but it’s far from certain.

VALLAS: So a key moment of leverage for Dems to actually get Republicans to work across the aisle on things that I would say are basic human rights kind of issues that Republicans have been incredibly [INAUDIBLE] on. So one other thing that happened, oh and actually before we move on I have to say so they managed to keep the government open for two weeks. Golf clap everyone, golf clap to Republicans, keeping the government open for two more weeks. But what happens in two weeks?

SLEVIN: So in two weeks if they can’t get a deal we have a government shutdown present for Christmas. So I think they’re smart enough not to do that. But I think it’s up to Republicans to act responsively to not shut down the government right before Christmas and act responsibly not to jeopardize the status of millions of people who are in this country. So this could all come to a head while people are home making their turkeys or hams or whatever people do on Christmas. I am Jewish.

VALLAS: Their seven tofus. We this year in my family are doing for the first the feast of the seven tofus.

SLEVIN: Wow.

VALLAS: People who know my family won’t be surprised by that.

SLEVIN: All our listeners.

VALLAS: We are very, very excited about this hear in the Dopkins-Vallas household and we’re all sending in recipes to see whose are going to win because you can’t just start with a list of seven tofus you have to start with I think we’re at like forty recipes for tofu and we’re trying to winnow it down.

SLEVIN: Winnow it down, you should have a tofu competition.

VALLAS: Well that’s kind of what this has become to be honest. You’re invited Jeremy, you’re invited up in Boston. So last thing that happened this week that I wanted to call out because it’s just too shameful and also somewhat inadvertently amusing I shall say not to call it out. The Trump administration made this big commitment that they really cared all of a sudden about homeless veterans. They did that earlier this week Jeremy but then what happened next?

SLEVIN: So four days after they had this big splashy announcement we find out that Republicans are slashing this program. I mean, also the gall to cut a program that helps homeless veterans and what they were doing is they were shifting it to what’s called the CHOICE program which lets veterans get healthcare outside the VA system. They were like taking from Peter to feed Paul. They were cutting assistance for homeless veterans which has bipartisan support and has been widely hailed as really successful. We have a homelessness among veterans crisis in this country. Politico caught wind of this because they were at this event four days before and then the Trump administration again reversed course so thankfully the good news for now is the VA has now halted plans to cut this homeless veterans program after this outcry. The sad thing is there are so many actions like this that don’t get the press attention and they don’t reverse. So who knows we got to keep an eye on several months from now. They may go back and cut this veterans homelessness program.

VALLAS: So in sum the Trump administration was against homeless veterans or veteran homelessness before they were for but they’re against it again now so don’t work guys, we’re back on track. The Trump administration for you ladies and gentlemen. So that does it for in care you missed it but my conversation with Congressman Jim McGovern about the GOP pivot to what they’re calling welfare reform, what will that entail. Don’t go away more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.

[MUSIC]

You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Literally at the same time President Trump and his colleagues in congress are working to ram gargantuan tax cuts for billionaires and wealthy corporations through congress without a single democratic vote or even a single hearing they’re making no secret of how they want to pay for it. And that’s by slashing vital programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance and affordable housing. To help us unpack where they’re headed and what they mean when they use buzzwords like entitlement reform and welfare reform I’m joined by Representative Jim McGovern. He’s a long serving Democratic member of congress from Massachusetts. Congressman McGovern, thank you so much for joining the show.

CONGRESSMAN JIM MCGOVERN: Well I’m happy to be with you.

VALLAS: So to kick us off here, Robin Hood in reverse has always been the GOP’s playbook and their most recent budget proposals released earlier this year were basically a hit list of programs they want to slash. But is it surprising to you to hear them say out loud and so transparently while they’re trying to do the thing they call tax reform that is actually tax cuts for billionaires and corporations that next on the docket is cuts to these kinds of programs?

MCGOVERN: Well I’m not surprised because Republicans have never been very enthusiastic about programs that feed people in our country who are hungry or provide them healthcare or provide them some sort of security. They’ve always been opposed to that. They’ve had this kind of approach to government, the survival of the fittest and you know if you’re well off, great, if you’re not too bad. But we have a group of Republicans that are just determined to undo all government and it is scary because if they succeed with their agenda a lot of people are going to be hurt.

VALLAS: Meanwhile and maybe this won’t be surprising to you either but I’ll have to confess having been surprised to hear them dress their very typical calls for cuts to these programs up in their same standard language about deficit reduction and unsustainable deficits. Was it surprising to you to hear them say that and use that sort of context or at least their stated imperative of why they need to cut these programs when literally just days ago they voted to jack the deficit that they claim to hate up so massively all to give tax cuts to the wealthy?

MCGOVERN: Right I mean over a trillion dollars in deficit, in debt will be added to the budget will be added to their tax plan. Look I mean you know it’s an understatement to say that the Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy but they are. And in this age of Trump you know they say whatever they want to say. Even though they know it’s not true. I mean they say up is down, black is white, round is square, you know facts don’t matter. And with regard to their tax bill I mean this is not a tax cut for the middle class. Basically this is a tax giveaway to big corporation, to those who are very well of and those who are very well connected. It will be a tax increase on middle class families and it will be a tax increase on those struggling to get into the middle class. So they’re just lying about what their tax bill would do. Even about what their budget will do, it wouldn’t cut fraud waste and abuse, it will gut programs that help a lot of working families in this country. So this is hypocrisy as usual and quite frankly it’s sad.

VALLAS: So part of the reason that people are especially paying attention this week when Republicans such as Paul Ryan and others talk about quote unquote, “welfare reform”, some people are using the phrase entitlement reform, sometimes they’re used interchangeably. Here I want to focus on programs that typically think about as anti-poverty programs. And that’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a letter and that became public this week to state food stamp administrators, state folks who administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in their states which some people have interpreted as the Trump administration basically saying they’re not going to wait for so called welfare reform legislation and actually encouraging states to take steps on their own to make it harder for struggling workers and families to access nutrition assistance when they need it.

MCGOVERN: Yeah so we’re going to have to wait and see what USDA really is up to but they haven’t been very forthcoming with us. But I don’t have a good feeling about this. I mean Republicans have for years wanted to block grant programs like SNAP, they’ve wanted to cut programs like SNAP. They have presented as fact a version of SNAP that is clearly not true. Basically they say it’s a program that helps people who are lazy, it helps encourage dependency. None of that is true. Of the people on SNAP the vast majority are not expected to work. Those people are kids, they’re senior citizens, they’re people who are disabled, of those who can work the majority work. The fact is they earn so little they still qualify for the SNAP program. SNAP is a program that provides people food. There are some things we can live without but food isn’t one of them. And by the way the average SNAP benefit is about $1.40 per person per meal. You can’t even buy a cup of coffee with that. We should be talking right now about expanding the SNAP benefit so that people have the resources to buy not just food but nutritious food for their families. And we ought to remind people that this program is incredibly successful. It is one of the most efficiently and effectively run programs by the federal government and has very low fraud and error rate and it is a program that also is an economic stimulus as well. People have to use SNAP to buy food, helps our farmers. Helps our grocers, it helps economy overall. But this is a good program and they shouldn’t screw around with it. They ought to understand that to the extent that SNAP needs to be improved, it is that the benefit is inadequate. Most people on SNAP end up having to go to food banks at the end of the month because the benefit doesn’t last as long as it should last.

VALLAS: So sticking with one of the themes in what you just talked about is the huge gap between what Republicans make it sound like these programs are about and then the reality of who gets helped by them. A number that I always like to remind people of is that 70% of Americans will turn to at least one means tested program at some point during their lives. So it’s not as though there’s these programs out there for some them over there while the rest of us are footing the bill. But that seems to be the GOP playbook is to flat out lie about what these programs are, who they help and to make them into something for sort of couch sitting, bon bon eating lazy people like the ones that you hear Fox News talk about.

MCGOVERN: Right you know and they promote this myth that somehow programs like SNAP promote dependency. The bottom line is the average time that households are on SNAP is 12 months or less. And we brought up to the hill to do briefings people who had been on SNAP at one point in their life who are now really quite successful who have come up to remind members of congress how important that benefit was when they needed it and to say thank you and thank you for believing in them and supporting them during a rough patch in their lives. But look this congress and this Republican majority has demonized poor people, has belittled their struggle, has blamed them for all of our economic problems, has tried to characterize them as lazy as I point the vast majority of people on SNAP who are able to work actually do work. I wish there was more of an outcry about making sure that work pays in this country. If you work in this country you ought not to have to live in poverty and yet that’s the reality for so many people in this country. And so this is a good program and it’s a program that helps ensure that people have food on the table. I mean I don’t, I approach this issue as somebody who believe that food ought to be a fundamental right for everybody. As I said before you can live without certain things, you can’t live without food. And the fact that we still have a hunger problem in America and that we haven’t addressed this issue the way we should is very, very costly. All these avoidable medical costs that are associated with food insecurity. You know I mean kids can’t learn if they go to school hungry. Workers aren’t productive if they go to work hungry. Senior citizens who have to make choices between prescription drugs or putting food on the table and they choose to take a prescription drug on a empty stomach and they end up in a hospital. Women who are pregnant don’t give birth to healthy babies unless they have adequate nutrition. And so we need to take this issue more seriously than we have but we certainly shouldn’t be trying to make it more difficult for people to be able to get the benefit when they need it and we certainly shouldn’t be demonizing people who are struggling in this country. I mean one of the things government is there for is to help people who are in need. Who are going through vulnerable periods in their lives.

VALLAS: I’m so glad that you mentioned the intersection of the poverty wage that is the federal minimum wage in this country, it’s been stuck at $7.25 an hour for the past almost nine years because Republicans in congress refuse to raise it. And as our listeners will know many people on SNAP are low wage workers for whom wages aren’t enough to keep food on the table and provide for their families. But yet what you hear throughout the GOP’s rhetoric and this was all over that USDA letter we were just talking about to state administrators is this phrase self sufficiency. It’s all over the place when Republicans talk about people struggling to make ends meet. They just need to be self sufficient yet that doesn’t really seem to pan out when it comes to their views on wealthy corporations or the richest people in this country.

MCGOVERN: And again as I said before, the majority of people who are able to work who are on SNAP, work. I mean believe me, if they had a choice between working at a job that pays so little that they need to rely on public assistance the put food on the table or working at a job that pays them a livable wage so they can go out and not have to rely on public assistance, they would prefer the latter. But the fact of the matter is that the jobs that are out there keep people in poverty. So these people are not lazy. They are working and they’re hoping that some day maybe they’ll get a promotion or they’ll be at a state where they won’t have to rely on programs like SNAP. But the reality in this country right now is that we have millions of people who are working who are still stuck in poverty. And so when I hear Speaker Ryan or I hear Republicans talk about self sufficiency I respond by screaming the reality that I just said to you. That people are working out there. They’re working and they’re working harder than ever and they are still stuck in poverty so let us address the issue of wages. Let’s help lift people up. And by the way there are still parts of this country that are still having a difficult time recovering from the bad economy that we recently experienced. Some of these people live in rural areas where there are no jobs. They live in rural areas where there is no public transportation to get them to a place where there might be a job training program. How do you turn your backs on those people? And I also try to remind people that people in this country who are food insecure who are hungry, they defy stereotypes. I mean they’re veterans, they are people who are working full time jobs. They’re senior citizens who have spent their whole lifetime giving back to our community and our country. I mean they are kids, these people are our brothers and sisters and congress treats them so poorly. I mean we have, you mentioned the flexibility whatever that means the USDA is trying to urge states to try to embrace. We have an example of what that means. We have Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who is moving forward with drug testing some food stamp recipients. You know what I have an idea. Let’s go drug test Scott Walker. You know maybe people who have stupid ideas like that ought to be drug tested. Because that is insulting. We’re not saying drug test big heads of defense contractors who get billions of taxpayer dollars. We’re not talking about farmers who get crop insurance, we’re not talking about testing any other recipient of government money but he’s talking about drug testing poor people. I mean that is just offensive and insulting and that’s the kind of stuff that is coming out of this Republican congress. What we ought to be talking about is how we solve this problem. We ought to be developing a holistic plan that ends food insecurity and hunger in this country once and for all. And yes, one of the ways we do that is to provide people more opportunities but you cannot take food away for people in places where opportunities don’t exist and again, we ought to dispel this notion that somehow that you hit the jackpot if you are poor enough to qualify for SNAP. Because again, that benefit is really measly. It’s a dollar on average, a dollar forty per person per meal. I cant even buy a Dunkin Donuts coffee for that. And if I go to Starbucks, forget it. But the bottom line is that is it. That is what we provide people to be able to feed themselves and their families. And the real scandal is that we should be debating how we strengthen that benefit because the status quo is costing us dearly. Again, the lack of access to nutritious food, the lack of being able to not have to rely, to be able to, lack of your ability to be able to go to the supermarket and get what you need for your family. Those things all have a consequence and we could do so much better. Hunger is a political condition when all is said and done. We have the resources, we have the know how, we have everything but the political will and that needs to change. I would just say that rather than spending money on a tax cut for corporations, maybe we ought to invest more in struggling families in this country. Maybe we ought to provide them the support they need so they can support their families and I think that’s one of the tragedies of this congress is that the priorities are so misplaced.

VALLAS: Well if it makes you feel any better you’re not the only one shouting at the TV when this stuff gets said. I’m doing it with you so here’s hoping we won’t be alone. In the last 30 seconds I have you for, Congressman do you think that the public still buys Speaker Paul Ryan and to any extent President Trump as champions of the forgotten man and the forgotten woman or do you think that the tax fight has laid bare what they’re really after?

MCGOVERN: Well I think the tax fight has laid bare what they’re really after. I think their attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and come up with a replacement that would throw 30 million off of health insurance, I think has shown who they really are. I really believe that a lot of people who may have supported Paul Ryan or Donald Trump in the last go around are now seeing who they really are. These aren’t champions for the forgotten man or woman. And they certainly not withstanding all the rhetoric, are not champions for people struggling in poverty. I mean they are the problem, they are the enemy of so many people in this country who are struggling, who are trying to make ends meet. And you know and people need to stand up and they need to fight back. But I have to tell you, when people complain to me about programs like SNAP my response is usually I’m proud to live in a country that has a program designed to make sure that people don’t go hungry. I’m proud to live in a country that has programs like Medicare that guarantee health care for our older population. I’m glad we have programs like Medicaid. I believe that everybody is important. That nobody should be invisible in this country and that the whole purpose of government is to be there for those who need a little helping hand during a very difficult time. Donald Trump doesn’t need government. He’s a billionaire. But there are millions of families in this country that do and they’re every bit as important as he is. And I’m sick and tired of listening to so many of my colleagues beat up on poor people, beat up on people struggling to get in the middle class and treating them as if they’re not equal. They’re not as important. They are every bit, we are all the same and we have to start treating each other with more dignity and respect and that’s why I’m hoping people are standing up in this country and fighting back. We need to take back our country. We need to do that in the next election. In the meantime we need to be doing a lot of damage control and we need to keep our eye on the USDA so they don’t screw around with this important program. I don’t want to go backwards I want to go forward. And that’s what I hope we do.

VALLAS: Well the silver lining of the healthcare fight has certainly been in my view that Medicaid has become equally popular to Social Security and Medicare in ways that people actually now recognize and many in the mainstream media.

MCGOVERN: And we’ve learned that in these state elections. Virginia, the number one issue was healthcare. In Maine you saw Medicare expansion in their health care system. So you are absolutely right but again, the fact that we have to fight to make sure that congress doesn’t mess around with food benefits or health care, I mean give me a break! I know most of the people who serve here are well off and well connected and made them millionaires but boy health care and food ought to be a right and we ought not to be diminishing that benefit, we ought to be talking about expanding that benefit so that people truly have security and so we’re in some fights. Again we have to find out what the USDA is going to do. We’re not quite sure. You know what they’re up to my gut tells me they’re up to no good. But we need to keep an idea on that. We need to watch this next farm bill. We need to watch very carefully what Paul Ryan means by entitlement reform and we have to make sure that he doesn’t view programs like SNAP as an ATM machine to pay for the corporate welfare that is part of their tax bill.

VALLAS: And here’s hoping that ends up being the silver lining of the rest of this fight is that people understand nutrition assistance, affordable housing, health care, all of those things are right there with Social Security and Medicare as what your colleagues should view as a third rail. I’ve been speaking with Congressman Jim McGovern, he’s a long serving Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts and a long time champion of the SNAP program. Congressman McGovern it’s been great to speak with you and thank you so much for joining the show.

MCGOVERN: Thanks for having me.

VALLAS: Don’t go away more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.

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You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. When David Mullins and Charlie Craig walked into Masterpiece Cake Shop, a bakery in Denver Colorado five years ago they had no inkling that the encounter would take them to the United States Supreme Court. All they wanted, after all, was a wedding cake. This week that case was argued before SCOTUS’s nine justices and here to unpack what’s at stake in the case called Masterpiece Cake Shop, is Sharita Gruberg one of the gurus on LGBTQ policy at the Center for American Progress. Sharita thank you so much for joining the show.

SHARITA GRUBERG: Thank you for having me, long time listener, first time participant so very excited.

VALLAS: Well thrilled to finally have you on the show. Just to kick us off, remind us what’s at issue in this case, what are the facts, how did we get here?

GRUBERG: Sure. So as you said, Charlie Craig and David Mullins were planning their wedding and they were doing all the things that couples always do when they’re planning their wedding. And this was back in the days before we had marriage equality also so they were already facing discrimination on that front. But they were going to go select a cake, they had their mom with them, or I forget if it was Charlie or David’s but one of them had brought their mom too. It was a family affair.

VALLAS: It’s what you do, right? You bring the family, it’s a big thing, it’s exciting people are like yeah, the cake.

GRUBERG: Right. And they go into a bakery and the baker when he realizes that the cake is for a gay couple says no. they didn’t even get to what the cake would look like, if there would be writing, like anything —

VALLAS: Vanilla or chocolate.

GRUBERG: They didn’t get far at all. It was oh, this is for two men getting married. I’m not doing that. So they left and they were crying and crushed because it is your most joyous day is suddenly a source of shame and pain. And that’s kind of on of the foundations for our public accommodations laws. Is so that everyone is able to participate fully in our businesses and public spaces. If you’re a business and you’re open to the public you’re open to everyone on the same terms. This has already been decided. It’s been how it is in this country for 50 years. And although same sex couples are not a protected class under federal public accommodations laws, in Colorado as well as 21 other states and over 100 cities and counties in the U.S. they are because there is a recognition that these are public spaces and we want everyone to be included and accepted and not be humiliated and/or excluded. And so the thing that we’re talking about right now is not the baker’s right to pick and choose who he serves, that’s not a right that you really have if you’re a public accommodation. It’s the right to not be discriminated against and to not have a special exception in a general group of laws you don’t agree with the law.

VALLAS: Now the bakers says you know what, to tell me that I have to bake a cake for this particular couple even though on religious grounds I don’t agree with gay marriage that would violate my First Amendment rights because my cakes, my cakes are a form of expression. I’m a cake artist. He actually likens his cakes to the art of Jackson Pollack, saying that they deserve protection as free speech, no less than Pollack’s canvases. So setting aside the quality of these cakes and whether they are indeed are Pollack style masterpiece as the name would suggest, doesn’t he have a point how is a cake different from say a painting?

GRUBERG: So this gets us in a really difficult situation. Because if a cake is art what isn’t art? What is not First Amendment protected speech if you’re going to say a cake is. Is a very artisitic hairstyle art? Is a gourmet meal where there’s a lot of chefs who I would consider art is they make delicious food. Is that art and these were some of the issues that were raised in oral arguments with the court. And the lawyers for Masterpiece were like oh no that’s not art. But I think that’s offensive to the chef or the hair stylist. So it’s hard to draw a line there if cakes are suddenly works of art. What isn’t a work of art if a cake is? Courts have been pretty conservative in what forms of expression they’re willing to extend for First Amendment protections to. For good reason because you don’t want a situation where you can, a hairstylist can kick out an African-American person because they’re like oh I only do white people hair because that’s how I express myself or that’s my art form. So you’re getting into really dangerous slippery slope if you decide that a cake has First Amendment protections and that you can somehow read into a wedding cake the political opinions of the baker.

VALLAS: Well and the couple’s lawyer pointed out that if claiming a speech or religious right gave someone an out every time they came across a law that they didn’t like he and this is a quote, “we’d be in a world in which every man is a law unto himself.” And notably that’s actually that’s the lawyer for the couple who was discriminated against here quoting Justice Antonin Scalia who is turn was actually quoting a 19th century decision as part of a decision he wrote in another case in 1990 so they really used Scalia’s words there actually to make their case.

GRUBERG: You’re right and this isn’t a new issue. We’ve already litigated this. There was a case in the ’60s where a barbeque joint didn’t want to serve black people because of the owners’ religion opinions. And the Supreme Court was just like absolutely not that’s not how this works. You don’t get a special exemption from general because you want to discriminate because of your faith. We have really strong protections for religion in this country. It is in the First Amendment, it’s one of the foundational beliefs and principles of this country is freedom of religion. But just like any other freedom there are limits and the minute your beliefs start harming other people is when you no longer have this free reign to inflict harm on others. That’s a right that you don’t have.

VALLAS: So I’m going to play devil’s advocate here for a second and I’m not going to do it with a hypothetical straw man I’m going to do it with Ben Carson because he did it for us so why not let him speak for himself. So Ben Carson now currently the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, previously a presidential candidate as many may remember. When he was running for president he basically said why is this such a big deal? Can’t LGBTQ folks just take their business elsewhere the way he put it was actually if they’ve been turned away by a bakery can’t they simply quote, “go right down the street” to buy a wedding cake at a different shop. Well doesn’t he have a point?

GRUBERG: Well there’s two issues with that. One is that we have a right to be treated with dignity and respect and the service refusals create really dignitary harm for people. And so it’s not just as easy as going somewhere else. Like as Charlie and David found they were crushed and that has an impact on how included you feel in society. And your willingness to go somewhere else. Like the couple that was discriminated against in the Arlene Flowers case downsized their wedding because they just didn’t even want to be in a situation where they could be refused again. And then it also presupposes that there is somebody else down the road that you can offer service but we did a study of service refusals and found that for people who don’t live in metro areas, LGBTQ rural foolks or people on a military base which was one of the examples used in a brief filed in the Supreme Court it’s really hard to find another service provider. So for 4 in 10 non-metro LGBTQ people in a survey we did they said it would be very difficult or impossible to find the same type of service at a different retail store selling wedding attire for example if they were turned away. 3 in 10 said it would be difficult or impossible to find a different bakery if they were turned away. So in addition to the dignitary harm that LGBTQ people face when they’re refused service there’s this other layer of it’s really not that easy. You’re also more likely to not even try if you face discrimination because there is that really significant harm to your sense of inclusion and you don’t want to go through that again. So another survey we did found that one in three LGBTQ people who experienced discrimination in the past year avoided stores, restaurants or other public places because they just didn’t want to even be in that situation again. And you know that’s really disturbing for those contexts but think about a hospital think about a doctor’s clinic. We’re not just talking about cakes here, we’re talking about being able to refuse to serve on a whole range of different things that people need every day.

VALLAS: And hearing you just describe this situation it is really impossible to think of this independent from the battle in the civil rights era for black people to sit at the same lunch counter and be served by the same restaurants that were saying they were whites only, really is the same issue here. So what’s at stake here if the court sides with the cake shop? Obviously bad news for LGBTQ folks who are trying to now exercise their rights to get married because you got to have cakes and flowers, that’s part of it. I’m being glib but there’s obviously a much broader set of implications here if the court does side with the baker. Does this signal a massive reversal of civil rights and inclusion in this country.

GRUBERG: Right, 100% yes. So for LGBTQ folks you’re in a situation where you could go to a store and it could say no shirts, no shoes, no gay people, no service. Like it’s and this was a question that came up in oral arguments that they really couldn’t answer. It’s not and again, it’s not just cakes and florists. It could be any kind of restaurant or public accommodation and even beyond that you’re putting at risk access to health care, employment any of the protections that currently exist could be undermined if you recognize that an individual has a right to refuse to follow the law. Because of their personal beliefs, that opens up the flood gates. And not just for LGBT people, you could have a hotel that refuses to rent a room to an unmarried mother because they don’t agree with her lifestyle. Or you could have other public accommodation refusing to serve an interracial couple because they disagree with them. Or rejecting to serve a sick person or a Muslim. I mean this is one of the issues with this case. If you rule in favor of the bakery you’re really opening the floodgates to undermining all of our civil rights protections.

VALLAS: In the words of the lawyer arguing on behalf of the couple who was discriminated against if those laws, and he’s talking about anti-discrimination laws, if those laws were subject to exemptions for anyone who could claim his product or service was expressive, they would become not a safeguard against discrimination but a license to discriminate. That’s what I’m hearing you say is really at issue in this case. So the, as I mentioned up at the top, the case was heard this week oral arguments and the justices doing the usual kind of questioning. What if anything can we gleen from those oral arguments and from the Justices questions? What do we think the likely outcome here is going to be?

GRUBERG: I mean honestly it’s hard. It was really difficul to figure out where Kennedy stands on this. Sotomayor and Kagan were asking a lot of really good questions about how sweeping this decision could be and the impact and they were pointing out like it’s not just cakes. They cited examples of a lesbian couple who was kicked out of a cab on a rainy night in the middle of nowhere and there’s another really horrific case of someone where a funeral parlor refused to bury them because they were gay. So they were bringing up like where is the line? And the lawyer for Masterpiece couldn’t find a line. There wasn’t really a line they could articulate and that’s a problem.

VALLAS: Because they were standing on that slippery slope you described.

GRUBERG: Exactly. They just kept saying well this is different. We’re just talking about cakes here. But the thing is if you say that any business with a creative element could have a license to discriminate if cakes are expression that can be exempt from public accommodations laws. And there was also an issue of the dignity of the individuals that came up a lot. And is a cake art is another question that was coming up a lot. Like where’s the line on defining that not just that artistic expression could have an exemption but you know if cakes are, then your dinner at a restaurant could be art. Kennedy was concerning because he did express a lot of sympathy for the religious beliefs of the bakers and seemed offended by the lower body, the Colorado Civil Rights division pointing out the history and the long history of using religion as an excuse for discrimination and I mean this is a fact. It is true that religion has been used as a cover for discrimination for centuries. And so hopefully Kennedy’s opinion that this wasn’t expressed in a kind enough way won’t lead him to rule against the basic rights and dignity of LGBTQ people. And you know he has a long history of prioritizing dignity and respect in his decisions. It’s something very important for him but I mean right now we don’t know.

VALLAS: So is this case, depending on how it turns out but just the existence of the case itself. Is this part of a broader attack on marginalized communities’ ability to participate fully in public life? Obviously it isn’t just about cakes. It isn’t just about the Masterpiece Cake Shop. People are familiar with the so called bathroom bills which set off a whole firestorm in North Carolina and really across the country. What’s the larger context here in which this case fits?

GRUBERG: Right and that’s a really good flag because LGBTQ people broadly face extremely high rates of discrimination. We did a survey that found one in four LGBTQ people had experience discrimination in 2016 alone. There’s a recent NPR study that found over half of LGBTQ people had faced harassment or discrimination in their lives so far. So it is wide spread. And the fact that we’re talking about undermining the limited protections that exist is really concerning. But it is part of this sweeping attack on rights that we’ve seen post-marriage equality. So we’re seeing these bathroom bills in North Carolina and Texas and all over the place that are, if you can’t pee in public you can’t really function in public. Like you’re going to be constantly worried about what’s my escape route? Where do I got? And that –

VALLAS: As someone who pees a lot. And I’ll say that openly I could not agree more.

GRUBERG: It is so basic and fundamental to like being able to exist in public spaces. And then we’re also seeing erosion and attacks on rights and ability to adopt and form families. So there’s other ways. So in Texas there’s another case where the Texas Supreme Court said oh just because you have marriage equality means that you can be eligible for the same benefits as a different sex couple. Which is absurd but these are the fights we’re having. There is this whittling away of the wins that we’ve had that really calls to mind what we’ve seen over the years in abortion rights where it is, you’re chipping and chipping and chipping away at these rights until you’re really undermining these basic rights. And we really have to be vigilant in fighting against these attacks.

VALLAS: And we’ve talked on this show before extensively about attack on the Americans with Disability Act as well, specifically targeting the part of the law that requires accessibility in public accommodations so incredibly similar here. Sharita Gruberg is one of the gurus at the Center for American Progess who focuses on LGBTQ rights and policy. Sharita thank you so much for joining the show and we will have to have you back soon.

GRUBERG: Thank you for having me. Life long dream.

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.

5 Tax Breaks for Uber or Lyft Drivers

Rideshare services make it convenient for passengers to get where they need to go, and driving for companies like Uber or Lyft is a lucrative prospect for folks who do so on a full-time or part-time basis. Of course, the downside of driving for one of these services is that you’re responsible for maintaining a fairly expensive piece of equipment — your vehicle — to earn money. The good news, however, is that by working as an independent contractor for one of these companies, you’re privy to a number of key tax breaks that could put some cash back in your pocket. Here are a few to be aware of.

1. Deductions for vehicle-related expenses

Since you use your vehicle for work purposes, the money you spend to maintain it is deductible on your taxes. There are two ways you can claim this deduction. The first is to deduct the actual expense of operating your vehicle as it relates to your business. This means that you can tally up your insurance, maintenance, and auto repair costs, and claim a deduction based on that dollar amount.

Image source: Getty Images.

That said, if you use your vehicle for personal matters as well, you can only deduct a portion of those expenses. For example, if your vehicle is driven for personal use 50% of the time, and for income-earning purposes the other 50% of the time, you only get to claim 50% of the aforementioned costs.

The second way you can claim a deduction against your vehicle is to take the standard IRS mileage deduction. For 2018, the approved rate is $0.545 per mile, and for 2019, it’s $0.58 per mile. What you would do here is figure out exactly how many miles you drove for Uber, Lyft, or whatever company you work for, and multiply that total by the appropriate mileage rate. For example, if you drove 2,000 miles for Uber last year, you’d get a $1,090 deduction.

Keep in mind, however, that it’s your responsibility to document any expenses you incur as they relate to your vehicle. This means retaining copies of receipts whenever you fill up gas, get your oil changed, or pay for repairs. If you’re claiming mileage, you’ll need to keep a detailed log showing your starting and ending points for each work-related trip you take.

2. Tolls and parking fees

If you’re required to pay for tolls and parking in the course of your job, you can deduct those expenses on your taxes. Once again, you’ll need to retain receipts showing when those costs were incurred in case the IRS decides to double check.

3. Refreshments for your passengers

Some Uber and Lyft drivers go the extra mile (no pun intended) by providing light refreshments for their passengers, like water or snacks. If you purchase food or drink items for your passengers to consume, they’re considered deductible. But sorry — the coffee you buy for yourself to stay awake on the job is not. Keep receipts of everything you buy so that you have proof of those purchases in the event of a tax audit (and to know what amount to claim).

4. Company commissions

One drawback of working for a big-name ridesharing service is that those companies take a cut of your earnings in the form of commissions. Maintain a record of how much you paid to the company you work for — you can deduct that amount since you didn’t actually get to keep it.

5. Your cell phone

You’re generally required to have a cell phone to work for a major rideshare company — that’s how you’ll claim your fares and communicate with passengers. As such, you’re allowed to deduct a portion of your cell-phone costs, and that portion will depend on how much you use that phone for work versus personal calls. If it’s a 50/50 split, for example — meaning, you use your phone half the time for work — you can claim half of your annual cell-phone costs. If you work for a rideshare service full-time, however, it might make sense to get a dedicated cell phone for that purpose.

Whether you do so full-time or as a side hustle, driving for a rideshare service is a great way to boost your income. Just be sure to make estimated quarterly tax payments on your earnings throughout the year, since, as an independent contractor, you won’t have taxes deducted from your income. At the same time, be aware of the tax breaks you’re entitled to and keep meticulous records so that you not only know what to claim on your tax return, but also have documentation in case the IRS decides to dig deeper.

Brian Reagan resigns from Board of Education

At the monthly board of education meeting, the public expressed concerns over the potential installation of a new roof over Union Valley Elementary School

At Ann A. Mullen Middle School for the Gloucester Township Board of Education meeting for February, members of the public questioned the board on numerous topics, including a new roof for Union Valley Elementary School, schools’ capacities and more.

Starting the Feb 25 meeting, the board announced the resignation of board member Brian Reagan. According to board president MaryJo Dintino, it received a letter from Reagan announcing his resignation on Monday, Feb. 18.

Reagan was one of three members elected this past November to a three-year term, alongside Carolyn Grace and Anthony Marks. Reagan received 13.03 percent of the vote of the more than 45,000 votes cast.

Reagan attended the reorganization meeting on Monday, Jan. 7 where he was publicly sworn in, however did not attend the Monday, Jan. 28 meeting.

Board solicitor Dan Long stated during the meeting that after the vacancy, the Gloucester Township Board of Education has 65 days since the date of resignation to fill the seat. If it does not fill the vacancy by the end of the 65 days, which is Sunday, April 21, the executive county superintendent of Camden County will then fill the position.

Advertisements for the position will be posted, followed by interviews by the board. Approval of a candidate, after a background check, requires a majority vote of the remaining eight members, according to Long. The Gloucester Township resident that takes this position will only serve until the end of 2019.

An “unexpired election” will take place in November for the seat with the board of education for the remaining two years, as well as the upcoming election for the three seats having reached the final year of their terms; in total, four members of the board of education will be elected this November.

Much discussion from the public during the board meeting revolved around the potential of installing a new roof on Union Valley Elementary School this summer. There has not yet been a resolution seeking the approval of such a project on an agenda, however discussions about doing so have begun.

The Sicklerville Sun reported on Tuesday, Jan. 22, that Superintendent John Bilodeau looked to have the board approve the installation of a new roof for this upcoming summer, that may cost somewhere in the range of $2.5 million.

Gloucester Township resident Ray Polidoro questioned the potential installation with regard to taxpayer money and how it is spent. Polidoro sent in an Open Public Records Act request for information regarding the warranty of the Union Valley Elementary School roof, however has not received it yet because the board is allowing the solicitor time to gather all the facts about the warranty before releasing it to the public.

“It’s still my belief that, as a 17-year-old, almost 18-year-old school, that product is still under a manufacturer’s warranty and I feel very strongly about that,” Polidoro said. “We went down this road with [Ann A. Mullen Middle School] and you guys forged forward because of the need for it.”

“But the problem is, a great deal of taxpayer money was unnecessarily spent. Not that the school didn’t need it, but it was unnecessarily spent,” Polidoro added.

Polidoro said he would like to see the manufacturer, GAF Roofing Shingles and Materials, evaluate the state of the roof currently over Union Valley.

Polidoro also asked if Pennoni engineering received any percent of commission in approving the Ann A. Mullen Middle School roof this past summer, which cost $4.8 million.

Bilodeau denied Pennoni engineering received commission from the roof’s cost.

“Not half a percent, not 5 percent, not 7.5 percent; zero,” Bilodeau said.

Later in the meeting, board member Jennifer O’Donnell expressed concern over the first reading of district Policies and Regulation.

“I began going through the policies and taking notes on information that is missing and gave up 100 pages into 186 pages,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell cited a policy option on the agenda where one of a potential two policies is to be marked as the policy for the district, however both are blank. O’Donnell said she noted several such mistakes throughout the attachment, eventually leading it to be tabled.

Lastly, Bilodeau announced principal Andrea Stubbs of Blackwood Elementary School retired Thursday, Feb. 28. According to Bilodeau, Stubbs was the first female African American principal in Gloucester Township. Also leaving on the same day was principal Suzanna Schultes from Glen Landing Middle School.

Passed at the board meeting was the approval of Christopher Mason as acting principal of Glen Landing Middle School and Alexander Ferrante as acting principal of Blackwood Elementary School; both were effective March 1 and are until further notice.

Episode 33: We Could Have Ponies

What the GOP’s tax plan has to do with ponies, how 21st c. slavery is playing out in America’s prisons, and a new book explores how poor people have basically no privacy rights. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

This week Congressional Republicans took the next step towards enacting Trump’s Robin Hood in reverse agenda, when Senate Republicans passed a budget giving them fast-track authority to slash taxes for billionaires. In the process, the GOP proved they don’t actually care at all about deficits — if it’s tax cuts for the wealthy on the line. Harry Stein and Rachel West, two of CAP’s budget nerds, join the show to discuss the latest in the tax and budget fight — and what Trump’s tax plan has to do with ponies. Later in the show, prisoners are being paid less than $2 an hour to fight the raging California wildfires. Rebecca speaks with Angela Hanks, CAP’s workforce development expert, about the ethics of prison labor. And finally, Rebecca speaks with Khiara Bridges, whose new book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights, investigates how the state intervenes in all facets of poor mothers’ privacy.

This week’s guests:

  • Harry Stein, Director of Fiscal Policy at the Center for American Progress
  • Rachel West, Associate Director, Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress
  • Angela Hanks, Associate Director, Workforce Development Policy at the Center for American Progress
  • Khiara Bridges, Author of The Poverty of Privacy Rights

For more on this week’s topics:

  • Follow Harry Stein and Rachel West on twitter to keep up to date on the budget fight
  • Read Angela Hanks’ piece on the use of prisoners for slave labor
  • Check out Khiara Bridges book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights

This program aired on October 20, 2017.

Transcript of show:

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): You’re listening to Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. Guess who’s been on the front lines fighting the raging California wildfires? Prisoners being paid less than $2 an hour, which as my guest Angela Hanks notes is essentially 21st century slavery by another name. Next, I talk with Khiara Bridges whose new book “The Poverty of Privacy Rights” investigates how low-income people possess much weaker privacy rights than other Americans. But first this week congressional Republicans took the next step towards enacting Trump’s Robin Hood in reverse agenda when senate Republicans passed a budget giving them fast track authority to slash taxes for billionaires. In the progress the GOP proved they don’t actually care at all about deficits if it’s tax cuts for the wealthy on the line. Harry Stein, CAP’s chief budget nerd joins the show to discuss the latest in the tax and budget fight and what Trump’s tax plan has to do with ponies.

This week congressional Republicans took the next step towards enacting Trump’s Robin Hood in reverse agenda when senate Republicans passed a budget giving them fast track authority to slash taxes for billionaires. In the progress the GOP proved they don’t actually care at all about deficits if it’s tax cuts for the wealthy on the line. Harry Stein, our budget guru and many other things guru but usually budget is back to join the show to discuss what the latest is in the tax and budget fight and what Trump’s tax plan has to do with ponies. Harry, thanks you for spending your last day at the Center for American Progress with me.

HARRY STEIN: Good to be on, let’s talk taxes and ponies.

[LAUGHTER]

VALLAS: Well I say that because I feel the need to send you off properly in style. You’ve been on this show probably more than anybody else here at CAP, you can take that badge of honor with you and we’re really going to miss you but you’re headed on to bigger and better things.

STEIN: Yeah so it’s my last day at CAP. I’m going back to where I came to CAP from, going back to the senate, very excited about it but very sad to be leaving staff because congressional staff are not to be seen nor heard. I probably won’t be able to do radio shows very often.

VALLAS: Well I will miss you. We’ll have to find somebody else who will explain this stuff in English but let’s take that as a segue to what’s going on in the tax and budget fight. A lot happened this week, I mentioned that the senate Republicans actually just passed a budget that basically paves a way for tax cuts for the wealthy. Help us understand what happened this week.

STEIN: Right so the whole point of the budget is to set this fast track process called reconciliation where they can pass a bill through the senate with a simple majority instead of 60 votes. This is how they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they passed a budget resolution in January and kept trying and failing to actually pass the reconciliation bill to repeal ACA. This is the next budget resolution that is now passing to pass huge tax cuts. What matters in here most is that this is a budget that would let them increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion, trillion over 10 years to pass tax cuts that from all indications, from every plan that we’ve seen would go to the wealthiest Americans and big corporations and might even end up raising taxes on a lot of regular people.

VALLAS: And I feel like I’ve been using the talking point for a while now that it’s all about billionaires being able to buy their second yacht. Actually this week we learned it’s not just about second yachts anymore, it’s about second jets because the former CEO of General Electric was exposed, Jeffrey Immelt was exposed for having flown routinely with a second empty jet behind his first jet just in case he needed a second jet. Right so just to be clear, it’s not just second yachts anymore folks, it’s second jets too on the line here. But Harry getting back to kind of the process here there was a lot that happened that senate Republicans and really all the senate took but it was senate Republican votes that were really clarifying about what they really believe and there were in particular a couple of votes that they took as part of this vote-a-rama that happened earlier this week on Thursday night. Help us understand what you think some of the most important votes were that they took on amendments as part of vote-a-rama and what that shows us about what they really believe in this fight.

STEIN: Right so budget resolution does give an opportunity for any senator tog et a vote on their amendment and so it’s a time, it’s very clarifying opportunity to see where people stand. And so we had during the Obama administration just years and years of hysterical warnings that a looming debt crisis was right around the corner and we had to get serious about deficits and debt and reduce deficits and these warnings, you would think that this was actually important to Republican senators, you would think. But like I said this budget allows $1.5 trillion in tax cuts and there were amendments to fix that. There used to be a rule called the Conrad Rule, named for Senator Kent Conrad that said that you couldn’t increase the deficit with reconciliation. The whole point of reconciliation initially was to reduce the deficit. It created a fast track process meant to reduce the deficit. It’s been since under the Bush tax cuts was really when you saw it used in the opposite direction and then to stop that they had the Conrad Rule. Well Senator Baldwin offered an amendment to reinstate the Conrad Rule, got defeated on a party line vote.

VALLAS: So essentially what her amendment would have done is to say actually what we shouldn’t be doing is increasing the deficit with this huge package of tax cuts for the wealthy and how did Republicans vote on that?

STEIN: They all opposed that. And I think what you’re seeing here is that they want their fast track process, they want it for tax cuts for the wealthy and they don’t want anything to get in the way of that.

VALLAS: And they’re fine jacking up the deficit if it means tax cuts for rich people.

STEIN: Right and they really want to hide that from you because the other big amendment was the budget resolution that they’re passing strikes a rule, eliminates a rule that requires a CBO score to be published 28 hours before the senate votes. And you know, we saw this, this was a problem during health care. They’d try to rush these things through. Well the budget’s going to make that even easier because it’s going to eliminate this procedural break requiring a CBO score. And remember, CBO doesn’t just tell you here’s how much it costs. And that’s important too, they ask tell you who wins and who loses. On a tax bill CBO will tell you how much do corporations get, how much does the top 1% get, how many people get tax cuts. Just like with health care, when they wanted those coverage estimates to be as quiet as possible, they wanted to rush the bill through without really having it clear how many people would lose coverage, they’re going to do the same thing on tax cuts. And again, there was an amendment offered by Senator Kaine that would’ve not only taken out the elimination of the rule that would’ve put back the rule for the CBO score but would’ve actually strengthened the requirement. And again, knocked down on a party line vote. I mean this is not a budget that’s about budgeting. This is a budget that’s just about cutting taxes for rich people and corporations.

VALLAS: So really, really clarifying votes that they took showing not just who they’re trying to help but what they’re willing to do in the process which involves throwing all of their apparent principles out the window in service of fast tracking these tax cuts for rich people. Now you mentioned that there is a huge price tag on all of this and I see actually walking by the radio studio as we speak, what good timing, someone who knows a little something about how big that price tag is. There she is, she’s coming in, Rachel West, one of the fabulous budget nerds here at CAP who happens to be on my team, the best team, the poverty team at the Center for American Progress. Rachel thanks so much for stepping in and joining us.

RACHEL WEST: Hi Rebecca, thanks so much for having me.

VALLAS: Well it’s perfect timing for you to jump in on this because we were just talking about how enormous the price tag is on the tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires that Trump and his colleagues in Congress are trying to ram through using this reconciliation process. You’ve actually done a lot of thinking about what we can do with that amount of money.

WEST: So we were just blown away when Trump came out with his tax plan and a $2.4 trillion loss over the next ten years is just unthinkable. How do you conceptualize that? We did a lot of analysis to try to put it in kitchen table terms for people. But I finally sort of threw up my hands and thought well crap, with this amount of money you could literally do something outlandish like buy every single one of the 325 [million] Americans a pony. Well so turns out Harry and I kind of ran the numbers around this and in fact it’s just one of Trump’s many tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires and corporations that could allow us to buy every single American a nice little Shetland pony. They cost about $800 on average, we looked into, we scoured the sites like equinenow.com.

VALLAS: Gotta set your sources Rachel.

WEST: There are a lot of ponies for sale out there but you can get yourself a really decent little Shetland, lives about 30 years on average for the nice price of $800, cheaper than Trump’s estate tax cut, which would cost almost $270 billion over ten years. So at a time when inequality is so very high, it makes just about as much sense we thought to give this kind of a tax cut to millionaires and corporations than it does to buy every American a pony.

STEIN: And can I just add to that because as we looked into this more, it really makes a lot more sense right now to give everyone a pony. My Little Pony the Movie is now in theaters.

VALLAS: It is in theaters.

STEIN: If there was ever a time give everyone a pony and not to repeal the estate tax it’s now.

WEST: Yeah.

VALLAS: Well it sounds like you guys are joking right. It’s funny oh, you buy every American a pony, that’s not something policy makers would do but it sort of again, clarifying because it helps us understand now just what that price tag could buy but also the seriousness with which we should really take the Trump tax package because of how imprudent its proposed spending really is. So just this is part of what I love about this analysis though, I want to take you guys to the next step of what you did, you didn’t just stop at quantifying the fact that for the price of the estate tax repeal for millionaires, Trump could buy literally every American a pony. You took it one step farther and said you know what though, if we were to go this pony route we would want to be responsible about it. And so you looked not just at the price of purchasing the pony but also pony upkeep, Rachel.

WEST: That’s right, it turns out that ponies are pretty expensive to maintain and keep them happy and healthy and thriving. It takes a fair amount of money. So we looked into food costs, lodging costs, farrier costs, you got to keep their nice little heels in good shape, their hooves. And all of that adds up to about $4,500 per year or about $45,000 over ten years so really that $800 cost of the pony, that upfront cost of buying it is just the tip of the iceberg. So it turns out that for just the cost of the senate budget proposal that Harry was just talking about $1.5 trillion, you could literally get a pony and keep it and maintain it in good shape for ten years for every child under the age of 8 in the country. That’s a lot of ponies and that’s a lot of expense. But really it just goes to show just how massive these tax cuts really are.

VALLAS: But you were very responsible in thinking that through. So you’ve created effectively a ten year pony window, right Harry?

STEIN: Right. And this is the important thing to remember, right, unlike the tax cuts for the wealthy we actually want to be responsible and think about, as parents would think about when their kids want a pony. But what’s this actually going to cost? And so we held ourselves to a higher standard than the U.S. Senate. The thing to keep in mind here is that ten year budget window. And we were asked after we published this, what happens to the ponies after ten years?

[LAUGHTER]

VALLAS: Harry, do I want to know?

STEIN: So –

WEST: It’s not pretty.

STEIN: Don’t tell your children about the Byrd Rule, generally that’s good advice. [LAUGHTER] What the Byrd rule says and this will be important in the tax debate too is that you can’t, using reconciliation use the deficits in years outside of the budget window. So they can increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion in the first ten years but not after that and the way that they might have to end up doing that with their tax bill is sunsetting a number of the tax cuts so that they would go away. And this is where it really kind of gets tricky with the ponies because we, certainly no one wants to see that happen with the ponies after ten years. So that sets up the pony cliff.

VALLAS: The pony cliff.

STEIN: The pony cliff, which means that after ten years you have this cliff and congress is going to have to figure out under our plan, like they’re going to have to extend this pony care somehow. And you know if pony cliff sounds familiar this is not the first cliff that congress has dealt with. We had back in 2012 what they called the fiscal cliff. And the fiscal cliff was among other things, when all of the Bush tax cuts which were sunset because of reconciliation and the Byrd Rule, all of those were set to expire at the end of 2012 and Congress had to figure out what to do with them. They ultimately let some of them expire but extended most of them. But they were, they expired to get them through under reconciliation. And so we face the same challenge with the Byrd rule with our pony plan but just like the Republican intention with the tax cuts if they have to sunset them is to then in 10 years pressure a future congress to make them permanent and so really the cost is quite a lot larger. Our pony plan does have a similar plan built into it.

VALLAS: Well you heard it here first, Byrds, ponies, lots to take in about what happened this week on the tax and budget front but really appreciate the work that you guys did on something that is obviously a lot of fun and it’s intended to be funny but really helps us understand the seriousness with which Republicans are not taking the fiscal pocketbook. So guys thank you so much. Harry thank you for coming back on for one last time but I hope that after your next chapter at the Senate you’ll be back here by my side being able to do this show on the regular in the meantime, we’ll miss you.

WEST: We’ll miss you, Harry.

VALLAS: Rachel, take care of those ponies, OK?

WEST: I will.

STEIN: Thank you.

WEST: Thanks, Rebecca.

VALLAS: Don’t go away more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.

[MUSIC]

You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Last week a Louisiana sheriff gave a press conference railing against a new prisoner release program because it cost him free labor from quote, “some good inmates that we use everyday to wash cars, change oil in the cars and to cook in the kitchen,” unquote. Two days later news broke that up to 40% of the firefighters battling California’s outbreak of forest fires are prison inmates working for $2 an hour. So writes Angela Hanks and Annie McGrew in a new piece up at TalkPoverty.org. Angela joins me in studio, thanks so much for being on the show.

ANGELA HANKS: Thanks for having me on.

VALLAS: So Angela I was horrified when I read that the share was actually as high as 40% as I said of the people on the front lines battling these raging forest fires in California are actually inmates who have no choice but to be there because they’re being used for their labor and it’s practically free labor. How is this even legal?

HANKS: It certainly is shocking and as much news and there’s been about the devastating fires in California this is something that’s really been underreported. These are people who are incarcerated, who are making $2 an hour for what are completely dangerous jobs. I mean ultimately they’re risking their lives for pay that no other worker outside of the prison system earns. It is unbelievably true that this is actually legal. The Fair Labor Standards Act does not cover, which says that people should be paid at least the federal minimum wages does not cover prisoners. So if you are incarcerated and you are working you are not afforded the same rights that people who are not incarcerated are, yet the prison system can put in in this incredibly dangerous job and say well, we’ll give you $2 an hour which is a higher wage than most other prisoners get, but it still is $2 an hour.

VALLAS: So effectively it is the law of the land in 2017 in the United States of America that prisoners can actually have their labor exploited practically for free, including in incredibly dangerous work like fighting fires.

HANKS: Yes, and California is far from the outlier here. The California program has been around since the 1940s but prison labor has existed in one form or another in this country beginning after slavery with convict leasing to chain gangs to the modern prison work system that we have today. So this is something that is not new and it’s always been built on this system of exploitation and on punishment.

VALLAS: Given the disproportionate representation of people of color and particularly men of color behind bars this, since you mentioned slavery it feels evocative of literally legalized slavery persisting in 2017. Am I overreaching here?

HANKS: When you look at the Louisiana example for instance, 66% of Louisiana’s inmates are African-American so this is certainly when you look at their program and you look at the history of Louisiana, both with slavery and with convict leasing, and the ACLU has drawn this line in Louisiana as well, it’s not hard to get there that this is something that’s taken on a modern form but it’s ultimately the same type of exploitation that that state and many others have seen since the beginning of this country.

VALLAS: Now you mention that the California inmates who have been on the front lines fighting those forest fires have been paid a whopping $2 an hour, right, if they’re lucky but they actually seem to be some of the lucky ones here. The piece that you wrote for TalkPoverty notes, most inmates are actually paid far less for their labor.

HANKS: Yes, so the average wage for an incarcerated person is 86 cents an hour.

VALLAS: 86, I just want to pause there for a second because I want people to take that in. You said 86 cents an hour is the average wage.

HANKS: Yes, 86 cents is less than $1. In some states, inmates are not paid for their work at all so they are essentially performing slavery and this is something that is happening all across the country. There are 1 and a half million people in state and federal prisons and more than half of those individuals are working for cents on the dollar in really difficult jobs too. I mean obviously in California the example of fighting fires is one where you’re literally thinking about people putting their lives on the line but you know they’re also doing all kinds of work around the prisons, they’re working for outside for-profit and non-profit organizations. They’re building goods for the state that the state will eventually sell, I mean, they’re doing real work and they’re not getting wages and someone else is profiting off of their labor.

VALLAS: Your piece names a few of the types of work that people behind bars, with no choice, are being paid almost nothing to do. Some of those examples include grinding meat, producing Starbucks holiday products, you can think about that when you go get your pumpkin spice latte today and even uniforms for workers at McDonalds but one stood out to me in particular as some of the most twisted irony I can remember reading. And that’s that some inmates are actually being charged with producing body armor for police officers who in many cases have been involved in police involved killings and maybe otherwise have put the safety of people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system at risk. They’re even, if I’m understanding this correctly, making the targets that cops use in target practice. Like literally the piece of paper that has that body outline on it that cops shoot at when they’re practicing. Prison inmates are making those for the cops. Am I getting this right?

HANKS: Yep, that’s exactly right. They make the paper fire arm targets, they make body armor. They make targets to practice shooting at vehicles, basically all of these instruments that the police and the military use to practice for the field. People who have been incarcerated by that same group of people are developing the products that they’ll use to provide that training.

VALLAS: We were talking a little bit about this before we started taping and actually my producer Will noted, and I think he’s right to say this, it’s reminiscent, we mentioned the slavery connection here, this part of reminiscent to me as well of the holocaust. Do you feel that’s an apt comparison?

HANKS: You know I mean I think that we’re looking at a system that is honestly I mean devastatingly exploitative and there’s no way to really separate this from the ugly history both in this country and others of exploiting marginalize people for the gain of others who have some political and social power. And so it’s hard to say this is exactly like this other situation but ultimately the structures around this are the same that we see on a lot of kind of exploitative and dark areas of our past.

VALLAS: You actually put a quote in your piece that I feel is worth reading. Shaka Senghor who has come into contact with the criminal justice system and reflects on those experiences in a memoir. He was also featured in Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed documentary released a couple of years back called 13th. And he notes in that documentary and you quote him saying this, “The 13th amendment says, ‘no involuntary servitude except for those who have been dually convicted of a crime.’” So effectively there we go, if you’ve convicted of a crime our society has decided we’re going to throw you back to the days of slavery or possibly even worse. So I want to not just focus on the horrible shocking pieces that have come to light as you’ve done this work and as the forest fires have raged on, drawing national headlines, what are the solutions here? How do we actually move into what I would view as modern society that doesn’t have slavery by another name?

HANKS: You know if you buy the argument, which I think we all should that prison is about rehabilitation then we should actually be trying to prepare people for a life outside of prisons and jails. So that means actually taking it seriously and trying to put in place policies that will actually help people find a job, help people pay off their debts, help people reenter their communities and the labor market and so one of the things that we landed on was taking these prison programs and turning them into apprenticeship programs that provide some vocational training which has shown to increase the likelihood of employment upon release and turn it into something where inmates are not only getting paid a wage but they’re also getting a credential at the end of the program that’s valuable outside of the confines of a prison and will also help them get a job when they’re released.

VALLAS: Is it a crazy thought that maybe we should just say prisoners should get the minimum wage because they’re doing work?

HANKS: At a minimum if nothing else happens on this topic, prisoners should be paid at least the minimum wage. That is where we have to begin. There are different ways to build programs to make them more socially useful for people who are incarcerated but ultimately if they don’t pay a fair wage they are not worth doing.

VALLAS: Angela Hanks is the workforce development guru among many other things at the Center for American Progress and you can find her piece on California firefighters who are actually inmates not having a choice as to whether they want to fight these fires and how that’s just the tip of the iceberg over at TalkPoverty.org. Her coauthor is Annie McGrew on that piece. Angela thanks so much for joining the show and we’ll have to have you back soon.

HANKS: Thanks again for having me.

VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.

[MUSIC]

You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. The U.S. Constitution is supposed to bestow rights equally, yet courts have routinely upheld the constitutionality of privacy invasions on poor people and as legal scholars have noted over the years, low income people generally possess much weaker privacy rights than other Americans. In a new book, “The Poverty of Privacy Rights”, Khiara Bridges investigates how the state intervenes in all facets of poor mothers’ privacy. She joins me in studio. Khiara, thanks so much for joining the show.

KHIARA BRIDGES: Thanks for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to talk about my new book.

VALLAS: So what got you interested? I think before we even get into any of the details of what you found, how you did the work, what got you interested in the intersection of poverty and privacy rights?

BRIDGES: So this work, all of my work really is just a product of, I went to law school in the first instance because I was interested in something that I thought of as social justice. And as a person of color I’ve always been away of racial injustice in a way that’s probably not at all unique to people of color so I’ve always been interested in race, there’s a strong relationship, undeniable relationship between race privilege and class privilege in this country so being interested in racial minorities means also being interested in poor people. And then I’ve also always been interested in pregnancy and motherhood. And part of that is some weird, psychological thing because I come from a family of obstetricians and so I’ve been interested in pregnancy as a physiological state but also as this time that kind of destroy the dichotomies that we’ve created in American life or in just the way we think about things. So like self and other, pregnancy sort of dissolves that dichotomy. The sacred and the profane, science and religion, so pregnancy implicates all of those things and so I just came to want to explore pregnancy, race, class during one event all at the same time. So I was led to do research with poor mothers and poor pregnant women. My first book was the product of 18 months of field work, working with poor mothers and poor pregnant women and this book is an outgrowth of that first book.

VALLAS: To make the jump to privacy your work is ethnographic, you mentioned you’ve worked directly with poor mothers and that’s what informed the direction of this particular book as an outgrowth from previous work. How did you go about the research? It’s one thing to say it’s ethnographic, it’s one thing to say you worked with poor mothers. How did that actually play out, what does your research look like here.

BRIDGES: So actually let me tie it together, the privacy question as a lawyer. One knows that we have come to understand pregnancy and motherhood as an issue of privacy. So I came to the issue of privacy and privacy rights because I was interested in pregnancy and motherhood. And so reproductive privacy is really my initial entre into the world of privacy but after working with poor mothers for half a day you learn that reproductive privacy is only one aspect of their lives that are not respected, right. So we’re talking, in the book we’re talking family privacy which is the ability or inability to raise ones children without state intervention and regulation, as well as informational privacy. And that’s the ability to keep private information to oneself or to prevent the aggregation and dissemination of the information that you are compelled under various circumstances to share with others. So privacy, reproductive privacy was my entry point and then it became this opportunity to investigate all aspects of privacy and we can also, I don’t explore in the book but spatial privacy, the ability to keep the state out of your home. Poor mothers have a very weakened ability to enjoy that type of privacy.

VALLAS: In a whole variety of ways and I do want to get into all of that. So how did you find the women you were going to work with and maybe tell a little bit, maybe a few of those stories of the women who became the research for this book.

BRIDGES: Sure yeah, so I ended up finding the site for my first book which was the ethnography, I was, I basically did a plea to all hospitals in New York City which is where I conducted my research, just a letter to the heads of obstetrics and gynecology departments to let me in, to let me observe and I got no takers so I ended up sending an email to a wonderful anthropologist, Rayna Rapp who’s at NYU and it seemed like she would know people because she conducted ethnography amongst obstetricians years before and she was able to get me a contact at the hospital where I conducted my research which I call Alpha Hospital just to protect the identity and I was just there for 18 months. I got IRB clearance so I was able to participate, observe, I conducted over 120 hours of interviews with poor patients, poor mothers, I conducted 50 hours of interviews with staff and providers and I got the opportunity to just really experience first hard, like viscerally first of all what it’s like to work in an overburdened, underfunded public institution.

But then also what it’s like to have to navigate these incredibly intrusive bureaucracies just to get a service or a good that wealthier folks can access with little to no issue. And so I walked away profoundly affected by the difference in my experience with accessing healthcare as a person with good insurance, you know and some class privilege, and the difference between that experience and the experiences that poor people have to endure so I actually have this interview that I observed when I was conducting research for my first book and one thing about the Medicaid program which is not at all unique to New York state, but is the New York state Medicaid program is that they require these interviews with various professionals, they’re all state actors mind you before one even gets to see an obstetrician or a midwife or a nurse practitioner who’s actually going to assess your physical health.

VALLAS: What kind of interviews?

BRIDGES: So we’re talking about social workers, financial aid, financial advisers really, nutritionists, health educators, geneticists, HIV counselor, right. So it’s a lot, I call it informational canvassing. Like by the end of the day, all of your information is shared. You know and as a condition of pre-natal care assistance. So I actually was able to sit in on the one of the interviews that a social worker conducted with a patient and it’s really quite remarkable, especially when one compares it to an interview that one, if a wealthier person were to be interviewed at the beginning of a prenatal care program —

VALLAS: I think you have a portion you want to read.

BRIDGES: Yeah, yeah, so it says, where do I start? OK so, “How much does the state give you for rent?” “Um, well I don’t pay rent.” And the social worker says, “You don’t pay rent?” And she says, “I live in a shelter.” Social worker says, “What shelter do you live in?” She responds, “Beta houses.” And then she gives her case worker’s name as well as her case worker’s number. And the social worker says, “How long have you been there?” She responds, “Almost 4 months.” And she says, “And can you tell me what the circumstances were that put you in the shelter?” And she says, “Domestic violence.” And the social worker says, “And how long did the domestic violence last?” She says, “Two months.” And she responds, “So you were in a domestic violence relationship for about two months and then you moved to a shelter.” And she says, “Mhm.” And she says, “How long was your relationship?” “It wasn’t really a relationship, it was like I would say, 3 months.” And she says, “I’m sorry?” And the woman responds, “3 months, it was like a 3 month relationship.” And the social worker says, “It was a 3 month relationship. And do you have a police report and an order of protection?” And she says, “The police report yes, not the order of protection, still didn’t get it.”

And it goes on and on, she asks about the nature of her relationship that she has with her father of her children, she asks how old the father of her child is, what’s his name, what does he do for work, is he going to help you when the baby comes, how does he support himself, what is he studying in college, right. So it’s this really intense, really invasive interview that this woman has to experience if she wants to get prenatal care.

VALLAS: I’m putting myself in her shoes right now thinking about that right, and the last time I went to the doctor and how I you know, never have time and I’m always working too much and it’s enough to even find the half hour window to go and get, you know a visit with a primary care physician and that the types of questions that they ask me and I’m comparing. It’s my height, my weight, it’s all medically related because I’m there for medical care. I’m just thinking about if I were to sit there and have gatekeepers before I could even access the medical care that I’m very bad at accessing for myself already that are asking me questions about my personal life, my dating history, how I would feel. On the flipside, one could argue that all of the infrastructure that you’ve just described is really, it’s got the best interests of the mother and her in this case future child at heart. How do you respond when people say, well isn’t that what’s going on here?

BRIDGES: Right, first I just want to back up and say I am totally with you when it comes to, as a person with admitted class privilege the umbrage I would experience if I were to be asked questions that seemingly had nothing to do with my medical care. For example I recently went to the doctor, I recently started a new doctor and I had to fill out the medical history forms and it was a fancy doctor so it was on an iPad. So I was you know flipping through the forms filling things out and I get this one page that says, “Intimate violence can affect your health, your provider should know if you’re experiencing intimate violence because it will help him or her provide you with better care. That is the reason why we’re asking you the following questions.” And then there’s a box that says, “Click here if you prefer not to answer.”

VALLAS: So you actually had the option not to answer which the mother you were describing didn’t have.

BRIDGES: Absolutely. If this mother were to say, “I’d really rather not talk about this intimate violence that I experienced that left me homeless and in a shelter that I’m still recovering from,” a relationship that kind of took place, you know within some sort of proximity to the relationship that she actually had been with the father of her children before this relationship, she remained with him. So it’s like a really personal, if she had said, “No thank you” that’s just like a red flag for a social worker.

VALLAS: Yeah, how would it play out and did you actually watch any of these situations play out where there was a person who declined to answer these types of questions on the grounds that it was too invasive?

BRIDGES: Right, yeah so the women with whom I worked at this hospital were very aware of their vulnerable and marginalized station in life and so they, I didn’t see resistance. I like to think of that as resistance, I didn’t see resistance on that level, a level of no thank you I don’t want to be a part of this. Because they knew the consequences are. I interviewed this one woman who missed a doctor’s appointment. Her son was born with some developmental disabilities and so he had to go to a pediatrician, a specialists to learn how to walk. She missed an appointment, it’s really hard to keep a lot of appointments when you’re poor and have to work and have other children, et cetera so she missed an appointment. Her doctor called Child Protective Services on her. And then now she has an open case, somebody came to her house, looked around, check you know how much food is in the fridge. Did she have milk, is she clean? So her house is opened up merely because she was unable to make an appointment. So women know, when you’re poor you’re educated about what it means to be poor and the consequence of any type of insubordination. So I didn’t see —

VALLAS: And it’s interesting the word choice, “insubordination” right which is not the word I would use if I were describing my own decision not to answer questions I view as invasive.

BRIDGES: Right, absolutely but the poor are disciplined to understand exactly how one needs to behave in order to retain some semblance of autonomy, privacy, dignity, et cetera.

VALLAS: Or even keeping your kids in your home.

BRIDGES: Or even keeping your kids in your home so yeah. But I definitely, which is not to say I didn’t see any resistance at all. I saw people who refused, the nutritionist would call their name out and they would refuse to answer because they don’t want to talk about their diets with someone who is not really, their loyalties are not really to the women, right. Like if I have a nutritionist, I’d love to talk am I eating too many carbs, am I eating too few carbs, too much alcohol you know love to, that person has a loyalty to me they actually have a fiduciary duty if they’re a medical doctor to me. If you’re poor and you end up in a public hospital or any hospital with Medicaid those persons with whom you have to divulge that information have no loyalty to you, they’re actually a state actor and so they are bound to the state to report things that raise red flags. It’s a very precarious existence and women, poor people learn how to navigate it.

VALLAS: So in a lot of people’s minds, myself included, the intersection of poverty and poverty rights conjures up the case worker from the 1970s, 1960s looking for shoes under the bed or how many, are there men’s clothes in the closet right and those stories often got told as people started to become more aware over the decades of the complete lack of privacy rights that people who interact with the government for purposes of public assistance receive, has historically faced and have been upheld over the years and I want to get into some of the history here. But you’re describing is much more than just asking questions about a person’s living situation and family structure that might be financially relevant to whether they’re even eligible for benefits. You’re talking about nearly every aspect of a young mother’s life.

BRIDGES: Absolutely so these questions go beyond the simple question of whether you actually qualify for these benefits. As a Medicaid recipient, I did my research in New York, you actually prequalify, the assumption is that you meet the eligibility limits because they want to help you start prenatal care, right.

VALLAS: Good for the woman, good for the baby.

BRIDGES: Good for everybody, right? It’s a win-win. But these questions go beyond first do you qualify and then second are you going to be able to meet the material needs of your children. To back up to a question that you were beginning to ask and then I didn’t answer it but you know, some people might respond this is really about caring for the mother and caring for the child. This might even be about screening parents for, who might be abusive or neglectful. So that really why, this is the argument, that’s really why privacy is invaded, it’s all for a social good. It’s for the good for the kid, good for the woman, good for society. I first respond to that, these questions of course go beyond that basic are you so poor that you’re not going to be able to provide your child with food, shelter, clothing, healthcare. It’s very easy to establish that. And also we can take steps to help people meet their food, clothing, shelter and health care needs. So these questions go beyond that. They are talking about intimate violence, sexual violence, use, abuse of any sort of controlled substance, smoking, alcohol, who you’re living with, how long you’ve been in a relationship with that person, how many sexual partners have you had, you know these questions are much more than checking to see if there’s a man in the house.

It’s really an investigation into the entirety of a person’s life. Now in the book I make an argument that the reason why these questions are being asked is premised on an assumption about why people are poor. And the assumption is that people are poor because there is something wrong with them. It’s because they’re lazy, it’s because they are just you know criminally inclined or they feel entitled to hand outs or they’re sexually promiscuous and they had a baby. So if people are poor because there’s something wrong with them, either behaviorally or ethically then their behavior and ethical deficiencies are going to effect the children that they are giving birth to and raising. And so the state actually has a great reason for denying them privacy because now the state can protect their children from these behaviorally and ethically deficient people. Now if we have told different stories about why people are poor, if we say well people are poor because there are macro large scale processes at work. Because middle wage, middle skill jobs have basically you know disappeared from the economy and now we just have this polarized high skill, high wage and low skill low wages jobs and so those middle skill workers are now working on the lower wage and lower skill jobs. Because people are poor because we pursue mass incarceration as a way of addressing our social ills. People are poor because of our inhumane immigration policies.

VALLAS: People are poor because their wages don’t pay enough because we won’t raise the minimum wage.

BRIDGES: People are poor because women don’t get paid the same as men. So if we told those stories about why people are poor then we wouldn’t presume that there’s actually something wrong with a person who finds themselves poor and pregnant. We actually might treat them the same way that we treat those who are wealthier. We would give them a box to check that says if you choose not to answer these question check here. And so I’m very skeptical of the argument that asking these questions helps the state screen people who might be abusive or neglectful for their children because if that’s what the state was actually interested in doing then wealthier people would be subjected to those same questions. If it was such a great mechanism for finding the abusers and the neglecters out there then we would ask the same questions of everyone.

VALLAS: Yeah that’s what I was literally about to bring up and when you were walking through the types of information that the state seeks to garner from people who are receiving Medicaid and that’s what’s covering them and providing health insurance for purposes of prenatal care there’s a, I think in theory I could stretch my brain and say that if you make a case in one way or the other that pretty much everything you listed could be explained as something that’s connected to the well being of the mother and the child if you really want to come from that perspective but the piece that doesn’t fit is OK so why aren’t we asking those same questions of all mothers who are expecting and we simply aren’t, or at least if we are we’re giving them the option not to answer and we’re still giving them their care, it’s so completely connected to and parallel the fact of drug testing public assistance applicants and recipients in so many states. Restricting how much they can have in the bank and then doing all kinds of financial jujitsu to find out what we expect they’re hiding. It all comes down to that fundamental point that you just made so well about our assumptions as a society about poor people and why they find themselves in those situations. It’s because there’s something wrong with them that causes them not to be trustworthy.

BRIDGES: Absolutely and the point deserves underscoring. It’s not, if poor people uniquely engaged in these behaviors or if they uniquely had compromised ethics or values it would make sense to just screen poor people and just serveil poor people and just you know deny poor people privacy rights and privacy. But the reality is that there are you know, non-poor people, wealthier poor engaged in the same things that the social worker was asking of this client. They’ve been in abusive relationships, they’ve been not married to the fathers of their children. They’ve been, they’ve missed prenatal care appointments and nobody ever calls the Child Protective Services on them. So there is a shared experience or shared behaviors, shared values across class but only those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are subjected to very particular state interventions.

VALLAS: Was there anything that you found in your research that jumped out to you as particularly shocking? You shared one story and I actually find that the sort of play by play transcript to be incredibly helpful because it helps people really sit in the seat that that woman was sitting in as she was being interrogated along those lines and effectively with a gun to her head because she didn’t have the choice not to respond. At least not a meaningful choice. Were there other areas where you were surprised that there were these types of privacy invasions that you hadn’t been aware of before?

BRIDGES: So one story always just jumps out at me and I still sort of react, I still can’t believe. So I interviewed, when I was in the hospital researching my first book. I interviewed this one woman before she, she’s still pregnant, before she gave birth and she was really excited about her new baby. She had an older, she had two other children, I think like an 8 year old and a 6 year old. So the next time I see her is at her post partum appointment and I’m like, “How did the birth go? I’m sorry I missed it.” Because when I like a woman I like to be in labor and delivery when she’s delivering. And she was like “It was terrible.” And I was like “What happened?” And she said, “Well I went into labor at night,” Her partner was working. And so when you’re a low wage worker you can’t say I have take off sorry, my girlfriend is in labor. So he’s working she goes into labor with her 8 year old and her 6 year old in the house. So she’s like, alright guys we’re going to the hospital mommy’s about to give birth. She goes to the hospital. They’re like alright so we’re going to admit you, we don’t allow minors in the L and D, we don’t allow them in labor and delivery. And so the woman says well are they supposed [to go]? The hospital responds by taking custody of her children.

VALLAS: They actually took custody of her kids.

BRIDGES: They took custody of her children.

VALLAS: Oh dear lord.

BRIDGES: They said first, red flags are raised. They’re like oh you’re coming in to give birth and there’s nobody with you like, why are you alone? Wealthier people show up at the hospital with you know a whole tribe behind them. And so it becomes constructed as that’s is deviance when one shows up at the hospital in labor with one’s minor children. So she lost physical custody of her children and at this post partum appointment she was still struggling to get, and this was like 6 weeks after the birth of her child, she was still fighting to get her kids back in her home.

VALLAS: And no evidence of any kind of actual abuse or neglect. It was really just the hospital saying oh, we see all kinds of red flags because you happen to have children and no one to care for them right now.

BRIDGES: Right so yes that was one shocking story. I mean there are less shocking stories about parents not being allowed to take their babies home from the hospital because they don’t have a child seat, or sorry a car seat. And it sort of makes sense like, OK if you’re going to put the baby in the car. But in New York, this hospital was across the street from a public housing project so women were literally just going to walk across the street.

VALLAS: So the question was actually posed do you have a car seat, and if they didn’t have a car and weren’t going to even get into a car it could still be a barrier.

BRIDGES: Right, it could still be a barrier.

VALLAS: So effectively you have to go buy that car seat for the car you don’t own to have the hospital satisfied.

BRIDGES: Right, so this is New York state policy mind you.

VALLAS: Amazing.

BRIDGES: So this applies to, actually I don’t know if it’s New York state policy or New York City policy but this is a blanket policy. It’s not just for that hospital. But it makes sense for, it’s not a barrier actually for the wealthier. For wealthier people it’s like fine, what’s $250 for a car seat? I have already bought so much stuff for my baby anyway.

VALLAS: Well you can think, I’m thinking about friends of mine who have financial means who don’t have cars. Now we’re having this conversation in D.C., where a lot of people, myself included, don’t have cars. And I’m picturing them in that interaction with the hospital, they wouldn’t stand for that. They wouldn’t say oh, hang on, hold please let me go buy a car seat. They would say no, and the hospital would, I’m assuming, back they would be wrapped in a different set of privilege would probably say oh cool, we actually don’t distrust you. Do you have the same expectation?

BRIDGES: I definitely, so I’ve talked to enough people in New York state, in New York City or who have delivered in New York who have been confronted. These are people with class privilege who have been confronted with this policy and they’re like so we just bought the car seat. But you’re absolutely right to have this sense that intuitively doctors are treating, in hospitals and medical providers and health care providers are treating their class privilege patients a little differently. In other research I actually don’t explore in this book but there’s a whole literature around it. Doctors have discretion to say, a wealthier mother is addicted to something. It could be prescription pills, it could be marijuana, it could be alcohol. That doctor is more inclined or that health care provider is more inclined to work with the wealthier client, get her into counseling. Make sure her family is there to support her through this difficult time. When we’re dealing with poor people that presumption isn’t there. That presumption that this is a person who is going through a private crisis and that we don’t need to involve the state in it, we can sort of involve the community, that presumption don’t hold. And so what you see instead is Child Protective Services and foster care.

VALLAS: Which ends up being the gun to the head of the women who have to jump through all these hoops to satisfy the state. So we’ve talked a lot of really negative, horrible experiences that the women you profile in this book have gone through and who haven’t had a choice but to go through them. But I want to talk about solutions. What is it that you would take away from your research, ethnographic, qualitative and otherwise about how we could actually begin to change a system that is thoroughly imbued with distrust of people who don’t have class privilege.

BRIDGES: So my solution in this book, “The Poverty of Privacy Rights” doesn’t lie only in the law. So what happens when one goes to law school and one’s a lawyer? One tends to be, one tends to lead with the law. So we tend to think, oh we just need to right argument to the Supreme Court.

VALLAS: Everything looks like a nail.

BRIDGES: Right, exactly. We just need to get the right legislator to listen to us and then we’ll get the legislation. And I don’t think that that is what we should lead with. I think that the answer lies in changing the stories that we tell about why people are poor. So let’s be clear. The text of the Constitution hasn’t changed in a very long time. And the text could just as easily be interpreted to provide for robust privacy rights. We don’t need to alter the text in order for it to be interpreted to provide robust privacy rights. Whereas at present privacy, I argue in the book, is non-existent. So it’s not like we need a different text, it’s all there. What we need is a different understanding of why people are poor. I think that if we rejected the ideas that people are poor because there’s something wrong with them then we wouldn’t look at a poor person who insists upon her fertility and her motherhood while poor as a deviant person. We would look at that person as just like us, she’s just poor. I don’t think that we presume that folks with class privilege are, have some sort of deficiency. I think that we, our assumption is you’re find until proven otherwise.

So I think that if we change culture then we would have a different interpretation of our laws and our due process clause could be interpreted such that it provides for robust privacy for everyone. Now the question is how are we going to change culture. It’s, I think social movements are incredibly important in that. I actually look in the book to the movement for marriage equality and that definitely, a lot of that happened in the courts and litigation. But at the same time as there was litigation occurring there was cultural change. we saw you know social movements organized around this question. We saw the visibility or the dawn of the visibility of out people in public life and popular culture. And so all of those things helped to shape a litigation strategy that ultimately concluded in Obergefell and we have now the right to marry for people of the same sex so I imagine something similar happening if we are ever to arrive at a day where the right to privacy means something for poor people.

VALLAS: And the Supreme Court has throughout history often been catching up with culture change and with the way that our society understands things as sort of not the leading edge but whatever the opposing would be, clean up as we make progress. I’ve been speaking with Khiara Bridges, she’s the author of “The Poverty of Privacy Rights”, a new book based on her ethnographic research with mothers who have no privacy rights to speak of during their pregnancies and there after. Khiara thank you so much for joining the show and thank you so much for doing this work.

BRIDGES: Thank you so much, it has been a pleasure and it’s definitely important work, not my work, but this work of transforming culture, transforming law, because we’re living a time where we’re not living up to the promises that we made in our founding documents so it’s time to change that.

VALLAS: A lot of what we try to do with the show and with TalkPoverty.org. Khiara Bridges and you can find her book on Amazon or anywhere book are sold, I’m sure.

BRIDGES: Thank you.

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.

How to Deduct Rx Costs on Your Taxes

Find out if your medical (including prescription drug) spending is eligible.

Did you know that you can deduct prescription drug costs, along with other qualified medical expenses, on your 2018 taxes? If your Rx spending in 2018 exceeded a specific dollar amount (see below), deducting these expenses might be worth considering.

Here’s how it works

For the 2018 tax year, you can deduct any dollar amount you spent on medical expenses over 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). These medical expenses can include, but are not limited to, prescription drugs; fees to doctors, dentists, psychologists and other providers; prescription eyeglasses; inpatient hospital care and more.

Here’s how to calculate how much you can deduct.

  • Multiply your AGI by .075 (7.5%).
  • Subtract your overall qualified medical spending (including the money you spent on prescription drugs) by that number to see how much you can deduct.

Example:

  • Your AGI is $50,000 and you spent $6,000 on medical expenses.
  • $50,000 (AGI) x .075 (75%) = $3,750
  • $6,000 (total medical spending)- $3,750 (7.5% of AGI) = $2,250 (medical expenses you can deduct)

Here are the rules

  • Most people can only make these itemized deductions if they do not take the standard deduction. (See standard deductions in Table 6.) If the standard deduction is greater than the total of your itemized deductions (including any medical deductions you make), you may want to consider taking the standard deduction instead (be sure to check with a tax professional if you’re unsure).
  • Most people can deduct prescription drugs and other medical expenses for themselves, their spouse and any dependents.
  • Most people can deduct prescription drugs and these other medical expenses. See if your expenses qualify by taking this IRS survey.
  • Most people cannot deduct over-the-counter drugs, nutritional supplements or vitamins unless they’re prescribed by a doctor.

Here’s how to do it

  • If you work with a tax professional to prepare your taxes, discuss these deductions with him or her. He or she will help you determine if your expenses qualify for deduction and, if so, whether doing so would be beneficial to you.
  • If you’re filing your taxes on your own, you can make these deductions on Schedule A.

Here’s how to save money on prescriptions during tax season and year-round

Budgets can become tighter than usual during tax season, whether your refund is less than you expected or you end up owing money. If you find yourself needing to cut back on your spending during this time of the year, remember that you can save money on generic prescription drugs (now and year-round) with Blink.

Hear what Blink Health is like from real people who have used it to save money.

Robbery Report: 2018

In 2018 I worked for 2,230.05 hours. An average of 46.46 hours per week for the 48 weeks I worked this year between February 1 and December 31. In the month of January I was interviewing for the job I started in February.

I track my work hours meticulously. I am required to as part of my job at a law firm, even though I am not a lawyer.

In every hour that I worked this year, $12.48 was taken from my paycheck.

That money was then used to invade foreign countries, build bombs, and pay the salaries of people I do not trust.

I had a total of $21,914.49 taken from me in federal, state, and local income taxes. That is a total of 26.7% of the $82,010.94 I worked hard to earn in 2018.

I then paid another $2804.81 in school taxes, $555.77 in county taxes, and $847.40 in city taxes.

That brings my total tax bill so far to $26.122.47 (31.85% total tax rate)

I was hit with $707.88 in vehicle sales tax. 
I was forced into an extra roughly $1009.92 in sales tax (I accounted for Pennsylvanias 6% sales tax rather than do the math based on county spending. Philadelphia adds another 2% for purchases made in the city.)

This number does not account for Pennsylvanias gas tax rate ($0.587 per gallon) which is the highest in the country. That number does not account for any of the propane taxes, specialty item taxes, fees, tolls, or other state imposed costs that I could also factor in.

That brings the conservative estimate for taxes in 2018 to $27,840.27 (33.95% total tax rate, or $12.48 out of every hour I worked in 2018.) This math is being done AFTER filing, there is no potential return to calculate against, nothing else can be written off.

In 2018, for the first three hours of every work day, I essentially worked for the government.

These are real numbers, and they are back breaking.

That tax bill is an astounding detriment to me and my young family. I am getting married in July and as you may have heard, weddings are expensive. With that $27,840.27 I could pay for my entire wedding in cash and have money left over, just with this year’s tax money. I have been working since I was in high school and have filed taxes every year since 2007. The total amount of money that I have paid in taxes is enough to buy my current house in cash, and then some.

The worst part isn’t the short terms costs — but the long term damages. If I were to fully fund my SIMPLE IRA ($13,000 Annually in 2019), my Roth IRA ($6,000 Annually in 2019), and pay my living expenses — I would have a cash shortfall. By taking so much money from my pay check, the government is limiting my ability to fully fund my retirement accounts, and making it more likely that I would have to rely on assistance (though, in reality, I can assure you that will not be the case).

The decision makers in Washington are claiming to create a social safety net, while preventing me from creating my own safety net. They are creating dependence and vulnerability, even among relatively high earners. According to the Wall Street Journal my income puts me in the top 12% of earners nationally. (Though I drop to the top 28% among white male millennials with advanced degrees according to the same calculator.)

The long terms damages of taxation are astronomical. If I were to invest that $27,840.27 in my savings account (I get a 2.20% interest rate at Ally Bank) I would have $56,251.85 on the day I turned 60, without adding another penny. If you assume my tax owed amount will stay consistent, and I added $27,840.27 to that same savings account every year, and the interest was only compounded on the first of every year, on the day I turned 60 — I would have $1.33 Million in my savings account ($410,762 would be purely earned interest).

If I had the freedom to take that money and invest it in the market at a conservative annual average return of 6.5% at age 60 I would have $2,990,000.

If I could get a 10% return (roughly the S&P500 average return since 1928) that number at age 60 would be $6,190,000 dollars. Only using tax dollars.

When you are robbed by the government, its not really the money they are taking in that year that is damaging — it is the compound interest that is robbing you of your financial future.

Remember, those calculations don’t account for any other normal IRA or 401(k) contributions. That is exclusively using the money that was taken in taxes.

There are millions of reasons to be angry.

For you it may be a growing frustration that your dollars go toward entitlement programs, for others it may be a frustration that your money is going to fight wars, for others it may be that your money which is currently going to Uncle Sam would be better used to feed your family, or invested in improving your local community. It is undeniable that how tax money should be used will never be universally agreed upon. Whatever your reason, just remember — it’s no mistake that tax day and Election Day are a full six months and 21 days apart — it would be dangerous for the Washington elite if the general public attributed tax day with the power of the vote.

Even if you count yourself among those who believe that taxation is justified and needed, know that your opinion is not universally shared. There is a better way to care for the wellbeing of our friends and neighbors than outsourcing the responsibility to a fat cat bureaucrat in DC. No matter how much money we give the government, less comes out on the other end to help people.

Government officials are the middle men. Robin Hood stole from the crown to give back to the people. The modern day kings who take under threat of violence go by the name: IRS.

There are voluntary ways to fund causes. Look at GoFundMe, for example. We could eliminate taxation by force and allow people to contribute their hard earned money to the causes they believe in:

If you would like to fix homelessness, donate to that cause. National defense? Give money to that cause. Social security? Donate to that cause. Universal healthcare? Donate to that cause. Vote with your dollars. That which is important will be funded, voluntarily. The result would be a smaller government bureaucracy, but better care and services for those in need.

Almost all of us are seeking to improve human lives and raise up all people. There is simply a disagreement on the best method to make that happen. It is a crisis that instead of working in our communities, we have allowed an inefficient behemoth in Washington D.C. to pick winners and losers.

This is about respect for the rights of all people, not just those with whom we agree. Respect your neighbors right to give money in your community instead of to the military industrial complex. Respect your neighbors right to feed her own bank accounts instead of bailouts for big banks. Respect your coworkers desire to contribute to charities he believes in, rather than contributing to the $223,500 annual salary of the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Every social service that the government provides could be a nonprofit organization overnight, and would operate more efficiently than it does now. The money you work so hard for is being wasted. It is being run through the bureaucracy washing machine and coming out less valuable. Giving money to Washington means less money for the homeless, the hungry, and every cause you care about funding.

The money that you are forced to give to the government (or risk going to jail) is not helping people. I genuinely understand that argument, that taxes build roads and help people who were dealt bad cards in life. Giving to causes that fix social woes is important — I give money to causes because I want to see a change in my community. Taxes, however, are among the least efficient ways to fix problems:

$874,000: Your tax dollars are being used to study the sex habits of quails on cocaine.

$2,400,000: Your tax dollars are being used to study daydreaming.

$76,000,000: Your tax dollars are being used to pay stipends to soldiers in the Somali National Army.

If you care about your neighbors and the well being of all people, demand control over your money and your life.

When I consider how lucky I am in my life, financially and otherwise, and I feel how difficult it is for me to fully fund my retirement accounts and plan for the future — it makes me question whether the powers that be truly have my best interests at heart. There are millions who make less money than I do, millions more who are not saving and investing, millions who are not financially educated, and millions of others who will get smart about money too late and miss the opportunity to leverage compound interest for retirement savings.

The irony of the personal finance crisis, the tax crisis, the debt crisis, and our national moral crisis, is that they are being caused, directly, by those claiming they have our best interests at heart.

Do you trust a politician to do the right thing? Think hard. You could be betting $6,190,000.00 of your own money.

Why Facebook may open new office in Nepal

After the infamous porn ban, the government is after social media. Especially, Facebook, Twitter, Google etc. The main reason, to control the information spread through them and TAX. Nepali business houses are spending a good amount of money on digital marketing and this is no secret. Nepal government now want sweet tax money from ad revenue. Till date, due to lack of official international payment channel government has not been able to earn tax for all those ad revenues. And since almost all companies are probably using the unofficial channels for payment, the ad revenue from Nepal is probably still seen as zero.

The new law requires social media to register itself in Nepal. Failing to do so will ultimately cause the BAN. Here are the reasons I believe Facebook and other social media will enter Nepal.

NayaPatrika’s estimation on how much Facebook is earning from Nepal.

1. Obviously, to avoid the ban. The ban will definitely cause outrage in the general public but since major social media will be banned the outrage won’t be noticed on the internet (lol).

2. It is estimated that the amount spent on Facebook ads and Google ads are close to 200cr NPR. The amount is huge and setting up an office isn’t an issue for these companies.

3. The government will face the backlash in Nepal, but ultimately in the global platform, Facebook and these giant social media will face the backlash. Especially, when the news will go out that they ignored the government’s order and is not paying tax. The ban and slow news day will definitely propel this news on the international platform.

4. It is not that hard to get in! Google is already making their presence in Nepal via Google Business Group, Google Map group and even installing cache server in Nepal. Plus, there are already companies like Microsoft, Alibaba, Cloudflare etc. in Nepal. Plus, they will still be able to generate good revenue from Nepal.

5. Setting up an office is not as hard as it used to be. With virtual offices and shared offices, it is very easy to get started and maintain.

Why they won’t come.

There is a chance nothing of this will happen. The government will pass the law and do nothing. And they won’t bother coming here as Facebook’s ad revenue from Nepal is still zero (since most don’t use Nepali banks to pay)

Easy Steps to Becoming an Expert Investor

In some years it would have been smarter to keep your money in a bank account, like 2008, 2011, 2015, and 2018. However, it would have been much better to have your money in the stock market for the other years. The problem is you (and investment professionals) cannot predict which years will be booms and which will be busts. The stock market also comes with tax advantages because the government only taxes you on the gain when you sell the stocks. This is a big bonus because the money that would have otherwise been paid to the government stays in the stock market gaining value.

Bonds: This is a savings vehicle that traditionally does not earn as much as the stock market but is not as prone to turning negative. If you think you will need your savings in a shorter time period, right on the edge of 3–5 years, this is a good investment. When looking to diversify a portfolio you should have a certain amount of bonds. Like stocks, you can purchase a fund from investments firms like Fidelity or Vanguard to buy bonds from several different sectors, reducing your own risk. Also similar to stocks, bonds also have certain tax advantages.

Certified Deposits (CDs): These are offered by banks and usually have higher interest rates than bank accounts, but not by much. The good thing about CDs is that they have near zero risk and you can lock them into a single rate until you need the money. The down sides are that you have to pay yearly tax on the interest and right now CDs only return around 2–3 percent interest per year.

High-Yield Savings Account: These are mostly online bank accounts that have higher interest rates than most of the big banks. For the most part these are better than keeping your savings in a checking account that is just losing money. I wrote about why savings accounts are unfair here. Don’t keep all your savings here because you won’t beat the combination of inflation and tax, but if you need your savings within 1–2 years it’s a fine place to keep your money.

Miscellaneous Investment Advice

529 Plans: 529 plans are designed to help you save for your child/grandchild’s schooling. These are tax advantaged so that you don’t pay taxes on the increase in your investment if you use the profit for education expenses. You can open an account even if you don’t have kids yet but plan to one day. Also, you can set up 529 plans so family and friends can contribute to them for your child’s birthday or as a Christmas gift. You can set one up with an investment firm like Vanguard or Fidelity and most states administer their own 529 plans. However, if you are investing your 529 in stocks you need to be cautious so your investment doesn’t decrease in value right before you plan to use the savings. I wrote a little bit about that problem in this Medium post.

Health Savings Accounts (HSA): These are the most tax advantaged savings accounts available today. The only requirement to open one is that you have a high-deductible health care plan. You get to take a tax deduction on your contribution and all of the increase in value is tax free. Additionally, you can keep the money in the account as long as you want and if you can afford it, you should not cash out your HSA even when you have health care costs. The only hitch is that you need to have a high-deductible health care plan. You can also set up HSAs through any of the large investment firms. HSAs are the best savings accounts: you can invest in stocks, write off the money you contribute, and the gains are all tax free. The best part is that there is no time period when you need to take the money out. You can let the money increase in value until you retire or just continue to save it. There is no rule for when you use HSA savings to pay for health care costs. If you pay for health care costs out of pocket and three years later you need to dip into the HSA, you can count the withdrawal against the health care cost from three years ago. Just make sure that you are keeping records in case the men in black suits from the IRS question you.

Home Ownership: Owning a home can be a good investment, but for some people it’s better to rent. If you have a big mortgage, you are paying a lot of interest. It might be smarter to wait a few years and instead pay a larger down payment. Additionally, there are many costs and fees that come with home ownership. A good rule of thumb is if you’re not going to live in the house for five years, you might want to rent. But home ownership isn’t all bad. It can be far better than renting if you’re staying in the same place for a few years. Home ownership can also come with tax benefits on the home’s mortgage, increase in value, and plenty of write-offs on improvements. Just make sure that it is part of your long-term budget and plan!