Media and Politics

Trumpcare Cuts Mental Health Coverage. That’ll Mean More Suicides—Like My Dad’s.

After he failed to secure enough votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) last month, Donald Trump is rushing to push another version of his health care bill through the House of Representatives. Like last month’s bill, this legislation would cause tens of millions to lose their health care coverage. And, in an effort to win the votes of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, the new bill would charge those with pre-existing conditions more for insurance and allow states to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s essential health benefits requirements. Essential health benefits are a crucial part of the ACA, since they require insurance companies to cover services that they used to skimp on—like emergency services, pregnancy and maternity care, pediatric services, substance use disorder services, and rehabilitative care. Plus one more: mental health care.

Health insurance companies did not have to cover mental health care until the Affordable Care Act made it mandatory. If that requirement is repealed, people will get less treatment. Without treatment, some people will succumb to their illnesses. That means more suicides.

That’s not hyperbole. It’s not hysterics, or fear-mongering.  I’ve seen it happen. My dad killed himself a few weeks after my 12th birthday.

Even 12 years after my dad’s death, I’m haunted by the memories of that night. I can still see my mom crying as she broke the news to her two kids, the shock on my older brother’s ghostly white face, and the red and blue lights of a police car swirling on our living room walls. The sight of police lights still makes my stomach drop.

My father’s suicide has shaped my life. It brought isolating numbness, crushing grief, and  strange looks from the people in my small town who were uncomfortable with its taboo. My family’s income, which was decidedly middle class before my dad’s death, was more than halved by his passing. We made it work because we had Social Security survivors benefits, free and reduced price lunches, and could take out a home equity loan that we still carry today. That made it possible for my mother—an actual, honest-to-God superhero—to keep my brother and I fed and clothed on less than $40,000 a year.

Every year, more than 44,000 Americans die by suicide.

Though Trump and the House Freedom Caucus may treat it as such, mental health is not a fringe issue. Every year, more than 44,000 Americans die by suicide. On average, it affects demographics that voted for Trump the most: 70 percent of suicide victims in 2015 were white men, with the rate of suicide being highest among middle-aged men. Like my dad.

My dad died, at least in part, because he wasn’t in treatment. Under Trumpcare, millions of Americans will find it difficult to seek treatment as well. Trump is gambling with their lives to pass a health care plan that will cut taxes for the wealthy.

If the bill passes, I could struggle to afford the therapy that helps me deal with the grief of losing my father. And there will be more 12-year-olds, like me, who will lose their loved ones. I can picture them now: hugging their knees, and watching the red and blue lights dance on the walls of their house as their world comes crashing down.

I don’t wish that on anyone. I just wish our president felt the same.

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Media and Politics

Trump’s Budget Breaks His Promise to “Put Miners Back to Work”

For the past year, Donald Trump has promised that he will “put our miners back to work” and pull coal country out a decades-long decline. Appalachian voters clearly believed him—they showed up for rally after rally, and on Election day nearly 95 percent of Appalachian counties went red for Trump.

It was never a secret that Trump’s promises would be hard to keep, but it’s still stunning that his first budget actively attacked the region. Along with a laundry list of other programs slated for elimination, Trump proposed nixing the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which was created to spur economic development in the 420 counties that make up Appalachia.  Since it was founded in 1962, ARC has helped cut Appalachian poverty in half, and has brought more than 300,000 jobs to the region. In the past year alone, its grants have created or retained 23,760 jobs, and provided training or education to nearly 50,000 students and workers.

While Trump is billing himself as coal country’s savior, he is gutting the agency that’s doing the saving.

 

I’ve seen what ARC can do for communities. Take, for instance, the town of Mentone, Alabama: nestled in the heart of Appalachia atop Lookout Mountain, and home to an estimated 390 people. It’s where my cousins grew up, and where I spent the better part of every summer from elementary school to high school. Mentone is where I learned to love the outdoors, where I learned to canoe, and where I learned to target shoot with bow and arrow and a .22.

Entire communities were left without their livelihoods.

Admittedly, Mentone was never a titan of industry. But nearby Fort Payne, Alabama, was the “Sock Capital of the World” for decades. In the 1990s, an estimated 1 in every 8 socks worldwide—and half of the socks in the United States—came from Fort Payne. Even now, there’s a good chance you own Fort Payne socks. But in the mid-2000s, under President George W. Bush’s free-trade agreements, many of Alabama’s sock manufacturers closed shop and moved overseas for cheaper labor. Over the next decade, the number of people working at the sock mills fell from 8,000 to just 600.

Entire communities were left without their livelihoods. And that’s when the Appalachian Regional Commission stepped in.

As the industry left, ARC invested resources into Fort Payne and the surrounding communities to support transitioning workers and their families. In 2007, it provided $200,000 for access roads to bring new businesses to Fort Payne, and $175,000 for a job training program in Jackson County, Tennessee—just on the other side of Lookout Mountain. In 2009 and 2010, the commission contributed $100,000 to a joint effort between Jackson and DeKalb Counties to enable the counties to update their water systems, along with an additional $400,000 for Fort Payne’s sewer system. From 2009 to 2016, the commission invested almost $1 million in Fort Payne’s education system, so that northeast Alabama’s kids had access to educational and technological resources—buoying the system instead of allowing the shrinking tax base to gut it.

Just last year, the commission funded the bulk of a project to expand Fort Payne’s visitor center for Little River Canyon—the gorge that runs atop Lookout Mountain. The Canyon attracts more than 460,000 visitors each year, along with an estimated $16 million in local economic activity. An expansion could mean more tourists, more jobs, and more income for the surrounding communities.

For towns like Mentone and cities like Fort Payne, a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission is the difference between moving ahead and falling behind.  By attacking the commission, President Trump has turned his back on the communities that trusted him to represent them.

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Culture

I’m a Queer Woman. My Best Friend Is a Gay Man. We Almost Got Married Anyway.

When I was 18, I almost married my best friend.

I don’t mean that in the sugary-sweet “we’re so emotionally intimate that we have silent, meaningful conversations by staring into each other’s eyes” kind of way that people usually mean it when they write about marrying their best friends in their wedding vows. Chances were pretty low that we’d ever end up romantically involved—our orientations made that a nonstarter. But we almost got married anyway, because our parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help us pay for our sophomore years of college. My financial aid advisor told me marriage was the least-bad way that we could make ourselves legally independent—our other choices were “join the military” or “be 24”—so we got engaged during winter break.

Jon’s parents had cut him off financially when he came out. Not all at once—they forced him out of their lives in fits and starts. They’d have a family dinner, then shove him through the glass in the living room window; take a vacation, then have him arrested for grand theft auto when he drove the family car back to school. Eventually they told him that he had to choose: be straight and get help paying tuition, or be gay and try to make it on his own. It wasn’t much of a choice.

My own mother was too consumed with her own demons to be particularly worried about mine. By the time I was in college, we’d gone five years without trash pickup or steady electricity. Our house had been foreclosed and my little brothers were legally squatters in our childhood home, biding their time until the bank came to claim it. When I finally called my mom to tell her I was pretty sure I’d need to leave my dream school if we didn’t figure something out, she stayed lucid just long enough to tell me to get a different dream. Then she started slurring her words, and I hung up the phone.

By then, Jon and I had been each other’s family for two years. He drove me to school and to the doctor; he slept at my house sometimes, and helped us clean up what was left of it when we finally got evicted.

When it comes to queer families, we’re pretty unremarkable. LGBT people are much more likely than straight people to cobble together ad hoc support networks—our chosen families. We’re more likely to be poor or rejected by our biological families, so we make our own families in order to survive. We’ve been doing this for as long as anyone can remember—from the romantic friendships and Boston marriages of the 1800s; to the house and ball culture that took root in the 1960s; to me and Jon, and our teen-marriage plan of December 2007.

The law isn’t made for people like us.

These families are very real, but the law isn’t made for people like us. With just a handful of recent exceptions, we can’t get time off work to take care of each other if we’re sick, or give each other health insurance. The only way we can make the law work for us is by bending it a little to match our realities—through adult adoptions or, say, marrying your best friend.

That kind of legal status matters. It makes a practical financial impact on people’s lives. But there’s more to it than that. When the government acknowledges that your family is valid, it legitimizes your worth. It’s not a coincidence that teen suicide attempts dropped after same-sex marriage was legalized.

Jon and I didn’t end up getting married. A few months after we got engaged, Jon met a nice boy and we rethought our plans. He joined the Navy, and I staged one-person sit-ins in my dean’s office until I annoyed him into bending the rules to give me financial aid. I quit writing—the only thing I’d ever been sure I was good at—and found a job teaching so I could pay the bills.

Jon never finished college, and I have six figures worth of student debt. The fallout from that will shape the rest of our lives—and it’s from choices we never should have had to make, but did, when we were 18 years old.

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Media and Politics

The Washington Post Ran a Correction to Its Disability Story. Here’s Why It’s Still Wrong.

Last week, TalkPoverty pointed out several serious problems with The Washington Post’s recent analysis of Social Security disability benefits in rural America. Yesterday, The Post issued a correction alongside new calculations. Unfortunately, there are still major problems with their data—and their central thesis.

For starters, The Post continues to over-count “working-age” beneficiaries by including more than half a million people over 65—even adding in some people who are more than 80 years old. Moreover, instead of using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS)—what the Census calls “the premier source for detailed information about the American people”—The Post uses a far less common data setThe CDC’s “Bridged-Race Population Estimates” data set was developed for the purpose of permitting “estimation and comparison of race-specific statistics.” It is used by researchers whose main goal is to calculate consistent birth and death rates for small-sized racial and ethnic groups—not at all what The Post’s analysis attempts to do. Researchers commonly adjust data for special purposes—but with the understanding that in doing so, they sacrifice the data’s accuracy in other ways. from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Compared to ACS data, these data undercount the number of working-age people in rural counties, which in turn jacks up The Post’s findings on the percentages of working-age people who are receiving disability benefits in these counties.

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees here. Even using The Post’s flawed methods, they were only able to find one county—out of more than 3,100 counties nationwide—where the story’s central claim that “as many as one-third of working-age adults are receiving monthly disability checks” holds up. Not a single other county even comes close. In fact, The Post’s own analysis—which it has now made available in a public data file next to the story, yields an average rate of about 9.1 percent of working-age adults receiving benefits across rural counties—just three percentage points higher than the national average.*

And yet the article is framed as follows: “Across large swaths of the country,” the article still reads, “disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults are receiving monthly disability checks.”

If by “large swaths” and “scores of… rural communities” The Post means McDowell County, West Virginia, population less than 21,000 residents—and nowhere else in America—then sure.

But the fact is there’s a word for using data this way: cherry-picking.

Moreover, if you swap out the unusual data set The Post chose for the aforementioned Census Bureau’s ACS data, you actually won’t find a single county in the U.S. where The Post’s central claim is true—and the dramatic percentages The Post’s map and other graphics depict start to look a lot less, well, dramatic.

Media should take great care in its coverage of critical programs like Social Security Disability Insurance. Reporting based on outliers—not to mention flawed data analysis—risks misleading the public and policymakers in ways that could jeopardize the economic wellbeing and even survival of millions of Americans with serious disabilities and severe illnesses who are already living on the financial brink.

Here’s hoping the rest of The Post’s disability series meets the highest bar for accuracy, even if that means less click-bait.

*The figure is the population-weighted average based on the working age population per The Post’s public data file. Researchers customarily use population-weighted averages to account for variations in county size.

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Media and Politics

The Tax March is About More Than Trump’s Tax Returns. Here’s Why.

This Saturday, tens of thousands of Americans, in more than 120 communities, are planning to take to the streets again. The Tax Marches, planned for the traditional date that taxes are due, are designed to hold Trump accountable for his own lack of financial transparency and to call for a more equitable tax system. That boils down to two specific demands: That Donald Trump immediately release his tax returns, and that he drop his dangerous plan to slash taxes for billionaires and corporations.

For years, Trump has been moving the mark on when he’ll release his tax returns. First, he was going to release them if he ran for office. Then, he promised we’d see them once the IRS finished its audit. Finally, in January, Kellyanne Conway dropped the pretense and said he’ll never release them, arguing that his win in November means Americans must not care about them.

The trouble is, Conway has it exactly backwards: It is precisely because Trump won in November that people care about his tax returns.

The president’s tax returns will give us definitive answers about his ties to Russia. Trump has a long and troubling record of defending the Kremlin, praising Vladimir Putin, and doing business with Russian oligarchs. Earlier this month, a Reuters investigation found that “at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida.” Donald Trump Jr. has even admitted that Trump Organization businesses “see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Only by revealing Trump’s full tax returns will we know if Trump is bought and paid for by Russia — and compromising our national security from the Oval Office.

The president’s tax returns will give us definitive answers.

The potential conflicts of interest go beyond just Russia. With Congress preparing to rewrite the tax code, President Trump could use tax reform as a vehicle to slash taxes for himself and the Trump Organization while cutting critical investments in our schools and neighborhoods. If he is going to propose reforms to the tax system, he needs to release his own taxes first. That is the only way Americans can know if he is pushing policies — including tax cuts — that will benefit himself, his Goldman Sachs cabinet, and super rich friends.

For decades, corporations, Wall Street, and CEOs like Trump have exploited loophole after loophole to cut down on their tax bill. Now, Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell are going even further by proposing dramatic tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, at the expense of critical programs like Meals on Wheels, food stamps, and FEMA.

Instead of slashing taxes for billionaires, a serious tax reform plan will fix the gross injustices in the tax code and build a fairer, more equitable system that closes loopholes, invests in communities, and puts more money in the hands of working Americans.

That’s why Americans are marching tomorrow. They’re standing against a president who has flirted with corruption, and sending a message to our representatives in Washington: It is time to start defending our country’s long tradition of open and ethical government.

Trump needs to come clean with the American people and release his tax returns. In our American democracy, We the People are Trump’s boss. He works for us. And we will not tolerate his dangerous attack on our country’s democratic principles of transparency and accountability.

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