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Taking the Affordable Out of the Affordable Care Act

Screen-Shot-2014-07-22-at-11.40.12-AMShreveport          Two different federal appeals courts, one in the notoriously Republican-dominated, 2nd Circuit in Washington, DC, and the other a bit more mainstream in Richmond, Virginia came down with contradictory decisions on whether or not the Affordable Care Act allows subsidies to be given in the 36 states where Governors and state legislators have stood in the hospital door and the feds have run the marketplaces. Without the subsidies administered by the IRS, the mandate for health care coverage would remain, but the “affordable” would be taken out of the Affordable Care Act. There will be no change for now, but this means that Obamacare will be on tender hooks throughout the coming mid-term elections and its fate will rest with the deeply divided Supreme Court next year. I’m not sure there’s enough prayer to protect the American people from the fear all of us now must feel.

Sadly, this seems part of a pattern of pointed and specific attacks on the poorest Americans even while the editorialists try to summon up platitudes about the importance of dealing with the deepening inequality of American society.

Reports have gotten wide publicity that perhaps as many as 2 million of the 10 million applicants for Obamacare may have had defects of one kind or another in their applications. Government Accounting Office investigators reported to a Congressional committee as well that they were able to trick their way into successful applications with fake IDs and income information in 11 of 12 cases when they went undercover.

All of these are tentative indications of problems, so they may or may not indicate deeper issues. Furthermore, there is a mechanism to fix early certifications, so it is unclear whether this is really an issue at all. Any change of income or inaccurate filing is all settled up later with the IRS at tax time where additional charges and adjustments will occur. The back-end corrects any front-end problems.

Nonetheless there can’t be any doubt that Obamacare opponents are pointing their fingers again to paint a picture of an “undeserving” poor ripping off healthcare. The subsidies now at risk, thanks to Congressional polarization that left language in the Act vague without a conference committee to clean it up, also are of course only paid to make the care affordable for the poorest working families who qualified.

Add this to the failure to adopt the Massachusetts-style $2000 cap on deductibles which will penalize millions of lower wage workers once the mandates go into effect in larger companies, and it appears the war on the poor is being waged on all fronts.

Unfortunately without some breaks or a fix, this is a cage match to the death, and the betting odds will be heavily against us.

US Border Crisis is Personal to ACORN Honduras Members

acornhondurasNew Orleans      President Obama has asked for $4 billion to secure the border, speed up deportation hearings, and house some of the more than 50,000 children that have crossed the border from Mexico to the United States having survived a journey on “The Beast,” as the train from Central America is called. The Republicans are hooting and hollering. Texas Governor Rick Perry says he has now activated 1000 National Guard members to do god only knows what at the border. Most of the children are coming from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with Honduras far in the lead with half of the top 50 cities sending children coming from that country and San Pedro Sula, the 2nd largest city in the country, accounting for 2200 children identified, leading the list. President Obama has summoned the three country’s presidents to Washington to discuss the crisis.

All of this is sound and fury unless you are an ACORN organizer working in the barrios and colonias of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula like Erlyn Perez and Suyapa Amador and dealing with the families on a daily basis. To ACORN International this is not just policy. It’s personal.

One of ACORN’s members, Luisa Almazan of San Pedro Sula, told us of her 14-year old son, Ermelindo, having been forced to flee to the United States despite the risks when gang recruiters gave him a choice of joining the gang or being killed. ACORN members and mothers, Candida Hernandez of Villa Nueva Cortes in San Pedro Sula, and Maria Antonia Callejas of Barrio Cabanas, told of the dangers to their sons, 18 and 16 respectively, and the fact that to save their lives they had been forced to pay $3000 to $5000 USD – money they didn’t have — to help them flee to the United States from the violence and poverty. Their children made it to the United States safely, but now they are detained by the immigration authorities in Texas. With no resources and already deeply in debt they are being asked to raise more money to transmit documents and get representation in order to secure their children’s release and return. These stories are repeated in every barrio where ACORN organizes, over and over.

In demonstrations in front of the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa and the First Lady’s office in San Pedro Sula this week, ACORN members are asking, “What next?” They are demanding the Honduran President take steps to finally provide security in lower income communities not simply to secure the boundaries from other areas, but to protect families from the gangs and narco-traffickers. They are demanding more support as well for jobs and educational opportunities. ACORN members and mothers don’t want to lose their teenage children to America. They are also demanding that the US spend some of its money to help the children relocate and resettle in Honduras and to actually assist them in getting their children home.

What ACORN understands is that this crisis is all about Honduras and its neighboring countries, and not about the United States. The US needs to get over its internal bickering and politicking and finally come to grips with the truth and the facts on the ground on the dirt streets where ACORN members are living and working in Honduras and stop militarizing the border and forcing the drug addictions of the US population to be paid in blood in our communities in central America. ACORN will demand change this week, but we fear, just as these mothers fear, as they summon the courage to speak out, that we will simply hear more of the same blaming the victims.

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How Can We Get the “Rip Us Off Now” Sign Off Our Back?

student_debtNew Orleans    I just have to wonder why when we are in a period of historic wealth and income concentration at the top, there are so many outfits trying to rip off low-and-moderate income families at the bottom? The hustles keep rolling down on our people like an avalanche.

The Student Debt Project issued a report saying that the average graduate is now leaving school with $29400 worth of debt. Ok, maybe colleges and universities are not rip-off artists, but the evidence is piling up that even if so many of our folks signed the loans willingly, the institutions were predatory, waving a dream with one hand, while pulling out the rug of reality with the other.

Everyone is finally discovering how predatory payday lending is on low-and-moderate income families, as if it were news. Some hope the relatively new, Elizabeth Warren promoted, Consumer Finance Protection Board may zero in on these companies. Their reports are devastating and worth repeating:

 

…of about 12 million payday loans issued across more than 30 states only 15 percent of borrowers could raise the money to repay the entire debt without borrowing again within 14 days. Twenty percent of these borrowers eventually defaulted. Nearly two thirds renewed a loan and were on the hook for fees that could put them on the road to financial ruin; three out of five payday loans were made to people whose loan fees exceeded the amount borrowed.

 

Yes, like student loans, there is no benchmark of affordability being used here.

And, how about auto loans.

Capital One is leading the pack with Wells Fargo right behind in pushing these loans out the door, and, low-and-moderate families are gobbling them up. We made it through the recession on repairs and now in 2014 the old buckets of bolts are just past repair, and people have to have the wheels under them to get to work, school, and wherever. Flooded with money, since banks were not making loans, we have the home financing bubble and securitization schemes coming back along with no interest teasers and high interest balloons creating a new subprime market in auto loans.

 

Wells Fargo, for example, made $7.8 billion in auto loans in the second quarter, up 9 percent from a year earlier with $52.6 billion in outstanding car loans. 17 percent of the total auto loans went to borrowers with credit scores of 600 or less.

 

And, yes, like student loans and payday loans, there is no benchmark of affordability, meaning ability to pay back the loans, being used here.

What does it take to get some real action by the government at the local, state, and federal level to take the “Rip Us Off Now” sign of the back of working families?

Internet Enabled Neighborhood Discrimination?

Syndication2New Orleans   This is our question for the day.  Are people using the supposedly “neutral” tool of the internet to get around fair housing laws that prevent housing discrimination?  An intriguing piece in the New York Times raises this issue in looking at the data explosion that gives exceptionally specific data on individual communities that therefore just might skirt the law.

The National Association of Realtors’ code of ethics prohibits realtors and associates involved in a sale from volunteering information regarding the racial, religious or ethnic composition of any neighborhood, lest they run afoul of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits steering of clients to or away from neighborhoods out of bias.  But many nonbrokerage real estate websites that act as referral generators for agents readily offer such information.

Whoa!  That sounds like trouble right under our noses and at our doorsteps.

HUD is supposedly looking at the issue but when queried was noncommittal and coy, only saying, “We are aware of the issue and are reviewing it.  It would be premature for us to comment while the review is underway.”  This seems a little bit like the BBC’s “House of Cards” saying, “You might say that, but I couldn’t comment.”

This whole side of the internet that is a tool for hate and division is very troubling, because you can’t blame the internet for providing public information and websites for aggregating it, but what can you do?   We hate to go all “big brother” on people, but it would seem that at least there could be cautions or warnings prompted by searches that could breach the Fair Housing Act.  If you are on YouTube, there are many movies and whatnot that make you prove you are over 18 years of age before letting you go forward into the unknown.  There also seem to be a huge number of scarily accurate algorithms that almost immediately send you an email from Priceline if you checked an airline site for a flight to Managua or from Amazon or a score of others if you looked for a lawnmower on the internet.  No question those folks know how to get into your head.  How about a bunch of warnings from HUD and the government that work like that and send messages to these shoppers looking to walk the line which reminds them of the law and so forth?  Would that be too creepy?

In fact would it be creepy and scary enough to have any impact.  As the kids say, “haters are gonna hate,” so is there any way to stop them?

Maybe not, but it seems to me that we have to at least make it harder for them, and maybe even let them know that somewhere, someone knows what they are up to, even if it’s a computer somewhere crunching data as well and driven by an algorithm that is watching and warning them.

            Better something, than nothing.

 

Taxpayers Should Never Have to Subsidize Discrimination

discriminationNew Orleans      The White House has announced that President Obama will sign an executive order barring discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers.  Essentially, the President is adding sexual orientation and preference from government contracts as part of the banned list including race, color, sex, national origin, and religious preference.  The order is estimated to affect 24000 companies with federal contracts employing 28 million people about one in five USA workers.

In recent weeks in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision allowing certain religiously oriented and privately owned businesses to deny their women employees any contraceptive protection as an exemption of the Affordable Care Act, some religious groups and their allies had attempted to win an exemption for themselves from anti-discrimination language. Now some groups are claiming they will sue, and some Congressmen are harrumphing about the fact that there will be a lot of law suits.

Bah, humbug!

They can waste their money all they want, but none of them have a leg to stand on here.

This won’t come as a surprise to many, but there are employers who don’t like people of other religions, races, and colors. There are employers who don’t like women. Many of them are able to get away with this, although if they are caught they face charges through the EEOC because these are violations of civil right statutes passed by Congress.

These and all other employers, depending on the states where they operate, will be able to continue to discriminate against existing or prospective employees’ sexual or gender preferences because it’s not against the law. At least not yet. And, none of that is good news, but the President’s order will at least mean that none of us, as taxpayers in the USA, will be supporting their bias and hate with our tax dollars.

They can keep on as haters until legislation passes Congress, but in the meantime they can’t enjoy federal contracts or supports, simple as that. The number of suits that disgruntled federal contractors have filed is legion, and invariably the court at all levels has ruled that there is no entitlement to a contract award. As long as the process is fair to all and transparent, the Government can award the contract as it sees fit within the specifications. The specifications beginning in 2015 are going to include the fact that the potential contractor pledges to not discriminate based on sexual preferences. If you want to discriminate, no problem, just get stepping somewhere else to get your money. If you agree you won’t discriminate, then you may or may not get a federal contract based on the merits of your bid and your work.

Congress already has a loophole for some of the haters. If the church groups are hiring ministers, they can be bigots. They can also continue to “consider” religion in hiring, just not sexual orientation or gender identity. And, they wonder why church membership is falling?

Talk to your lawyers, brothers and sisters, but then look in your hearts as well as your wallets. You want my tax money, then do right. If you don’t do right, step off. Your lawyers will tell you the same thing. I’m just trying to save you some money. You’re going to need every dollar you can get your hands on if you want to hold tight to your hating ways, then my tax dollar along with everyone else’s will never find your pocket.

Regulating Payday Lenders Out of Our Neighborhoods Like Porn Shops and Liquor Stores

52668645Houston       Payday lenders are by definition predatory no matter how they try to spin the story. Driving in torrential, blinding rains yesterday from Dallas to Houston, I listened to an ad from ACE Cash Express offering “free” loans of up to $1500 for 30-days supposedly without any interest or fees. ACE Cash Express just settled for $10 million with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau for illegal collection practices, which makes it all clearer now. They don’t mind lending, because they know people will have trouble paying, and they browbeat the collection process to make their money of late fees, extra charges, interest past the due date, and any number of other scams.

As payday lending continues to rush into low and moderate income communities to fill the huge gap for small loans since banks have totally retreated from the field in most countries, despite their charter obligations to serve all of the public, their storefronts have become even more ubiquitous than overgrown vacant lots in most of our communities. Interestingly, communities in British Columbia may have found a way to curb some of these companies by managing the zoning and licensing process for payday lenders the same way they do for other public nuisance businesses like the way porn shops and liquor stores are handled in the USA.

Few working families can afford to live in Vancouver anymore, so there’s significant growth in low-and-moderate income, working families’ suburbs like Surrey, Burnaby, and others within commuting distance. Surrey first stumbled into a city bylaw or ordinance that would force any new payday lender to have to open up at a considerable distance from others and from schools as well, as if they were drug pushers, which is a pretty good comparable.

ACORN Canada’s local group in Burnaby is close to moving these payday lending restrictions using fines and zoning some giant steps forward. They have already convinced the Council that the issue has to be seem as a priority. Now after actions and meetings with planners, they have convinced the city to consider a range of alternatives including moratoriums on the issuance of licenses, a bylaw restricting the proximity between each outlet, substantially raising business license costs as well as giving city council discretionary power for approval over each payday lender license application. ACORN leaders have been imaginative, even suggesting that increased licensing fees go to a ‘renter’s bank’ for people who need emergency rent relief, which has also attracted interest. Another BC suburb, Esquimalt, has created a separate definition for ‘money lenders’ that exclude financial services such as credit unions, meaning credit unions would not be affected if they provide small, short term loans to clients, and Burnaby would have to also narrow its definitions.

None of this is a done deal, but there’s a lot of interest and encouragement from folks in and outside of City Hall so the prospects of huge breakthroughs look very, very likely, and perhaps even very soon. Regardless of the “when,” the “if” seems certain now that ACORN has increasingly ramped up its localized attack on payday lending in our communities and is gaining traction in a building consensus that views these rip-off artists as essentially the same as other peddlers who make their money off predatory practices and peoples’ weaknesses. Putting a triple XXX on payday lending locations in our neighborhoods makes sense. The only real difference between the porn palaces and the liquor stores may be that the payday lending folks steal even more money than those outfits from lower income families every time they walk through the door.

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