Media and Politics

For the Cost of Repealing the Estate Tax, Congress Could Buy Everyone in America a Pony

You know how you’ve always wanted a pony? How as a child you dreamed of feeding carrots and sugar cubes out of the palm of your hand to a little chestnut-colored horse named Maple?

It may sound fanciful to adults, but President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress put together a wish list of tax cuts for the wealthy that are far more extravagant than ponies. It turns out for the cost of just one of these tax cuts—repealing the tax on wealthy estates—we could literally buy every single American a pony.

A lovely little Shetland pony, specifically. For all 325 million of us. In fact, the benefits Trump’s own adult children could get from his estate tax repeal would fund nearly 1.4 million ponies—that alone is enough to cover giving a pony to everyone in the state of Maine.

Let’s break down the numbers. Shetland ponies range in price from $300 to $1,500. We’re not lavish people, but we also don’t want to buy a cut-rate horse, so we assumed $800 per pony (and, of course, that there are enough ponies to go around). The larger expenses are the continuous costs of keeping our ponies healthy, active, and thriving: Every year our ponies will need lodging ($2,400), food ($1,200), and visits from the vet ($300) and farrier ($500).

These are sizeable expenses; on average, purchasing and caring for a pony will cost about $44,800 over 10 years. But the Senate is already considering a budget that includes a far more sizable expense: $1.5 trillion over 10 years in higher budget deficits for tax cuts that will mostly benefit the wealthy.

If Congress abandoned its tax cuts for millionaires and wealthy corporations, it could use that $1.5 trillion to purchase and care for a pony for roughly every American child ages 8 and below. Given the current dynamics in the United States—where economic inequality is skyrocketing and My Little Pony: The Movie is now playing in theaters—giving ponies to children is probably a more appropriate policy response than giving tax breaks to millionaires.

1 in 4 families will actually see their taxes rise under his plan.

Alternatively, instead of providing tax cuts for millionaires or ponies for children, lawmakers could also use $1.5 trillion in many other ways to create jobs, reduce child poverty, end homelessness, make college free, or provide paid family leave.

In reality, of course, average Americans will miss out on the pleasures of ponies. A lot of them will even miss out on the tax cuts Trump is promising: 1 in 4 families will actually see their taxes rise under his plan by 2027, while 80 percent of the tax cuts go to households in the top 1 percent. Those tax cuts for the wealthy are enormously expensive, and Congress cannot enact them without severe trade-offs.

Like the continuous costs of pony upkeep, maintaining America’s economy requires ongoing investments—in education, in transportation, in research and scientific innovation. Yet as we’ve seen time and again, when policymakers slash tax revenue by giving handouts to the rich, they turn around and cut these very investments by complaining that we can’t afford them. And policymakers have made no secret that that’s what they plan to do: Trump’s budget gets two-thirds of its draconian spending cuts by slashing programs that serve low- and moderate-income families, to the tune of $2.5 trillion over a decade.

At a time when 44 percent of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency—and 9 in 10 prefer economic stability to greater economic mobility—Americans aren’t asking for ponies, presents, or parades. And they’re really not asking for massive tax cuts for millionaires, billionaires, and corporations.

Seventy-five percent of Americans agree that “the wealthiest Americans should pay higher tax rates.” President Trump and Congressional Republican leaders want to give away the horse, the cart, and the country’s future to the rich, leaving little or nothing for the rest of us.

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Culture

How a Mass Shooting Made My Town Advocates for Gun Safety

My rough, unscientific estimate is that we are about three-quarters of the way through the national grieving process for Las Vegas. Americans are pretty familiar with the rhythmic mourning of mass shootings: Widespread shock, political chest-beating, internet rage, and then silence. Then our wounds start to heal and the nation moves on, leaving the thousands of people who were injured or lost someone they loved to recover on their own. Those individual broken hearts will keep bleeding for years—many, like mine, will burst open again every time there’s another shooting.

My mind still flashes back to my hometown every time news of a shooting breaks, even though Tomasz was killed almost five years ago. It was early on Christmas Eve in 2012 when a man set his family home on fire and shot the firefighters who responded to the blaze from a berm across the street. He used the same model of assault rifle that was used in the Sandy Hook massacre two weeks earlier.

I found out Tomasz was dead on Twitter. I had been watching footage of my town burning for hours, hoping that I didn’t know the people who had been killed. Then a local reporter tweeted a picture of a piece of notebook paper where she had scrawled the names of the victims. She spelled Tomasz’s first and last name wrong, with “ch”s where there should have been “z”s and “k”s, but that felt almost appropriate. His Polish name had confused people for his entire life—at least 25 percent of people responded “bless you” when he introduced himself, and when teachers struggled with the pronunciation during roll call his entire class used to shout his name in unison.

Our town was never particularly pro-gun, but after Tomasz was murdered we became fierce advocates for gun control. And about three weeks after his death, New York State had a new gun-control law to show for it—with a special provision that makes the penalty for murdering a first responder life in prison without parole. It was lauded in New York City, and Albany, and even my hometown, but once you step over the county line, “Repeal the SAFE Act” signs dot the front lawns. There, the law is viewed with a mix of indignation and hostility—an encroachment on a centuries-old way of life of people who genuinely don’t believe their guns are part of the problem.

I’m a product of that side of the county line, too. My grandfather taught me and my brothers how to shoot tin cans and milk jugs before Thanksgiving dinner when I was ten years old. He thought of guns as a tool, and grumbled instructions with the same matter-of-fact directness he used when he taught me how to change an alternator. I’m still not a great shot—I hit low, because I drop my arm—but I’m competent. That was important to my grandpa—he respected that my brothers and I were nervous nerds, but he needed us to be able to fend for ourselves.

Grandpa made the only joke I ever remember him telling during that shooting lesson. One of my little brothers was telling a story, and—forgetting that there was a pistol in his left hand—he flailed his little eight-year-old arms towards Grandpa’s torso while his index finger was still on the trigger. My grandfather pushed the barrel of the gun back toward the ground and flipped the safety on before chuckling, “Be careful where you point that thing—my flesh is very tender, and doesn’t much like being shot.”

That power—the power to kill—is a thing white Americans feel entitled to.

That’s the thing about guns—no one much likes being shot. But last year, 33,594 Americans were killed by guns—5,000 more than the number of people who died from prostate cancer. We’ve changed the way we practice medicine to make sure those cancer patients get the treatment they need—but guns, not so much.

The trouble with guns is that they were designed to kill, and they do it more readily than anything else we’ve created for the job. Even people who grew up with them—who think of them as tools, and respect their inherent danger—know that. That’s why they were written into our constitution, and that’s why we cling to them. It’s because that power—the power to kill—is a thing white Americans feel entitled to.

And it is, to be clear, white (mostly male) Americans who are worried about our guns. We are 80 percent more likely than black Americans, and 157 percent more likely than Hispanic Americans, to prize gun access over gun safety. That level of concern spiked right after Obama was elected, and in the years following the top reason gun owners cited for having a weapon switched from “hunting” to “safety.” That’s also when, as Bill O’Reilly put it, white folks started to realize that it might not be “a traditional America anymore.”

Over the centuries, white Americans have felt entitled to a lot. We’ve felt entitled to usurp land, and to lay waste to human bodies, and to enrich ourselves by exploiting others. We have been forced, very slowly, to recognize that those things aren’t our right. None of it has been graceful—we fought wars for land and slavery, rioted for segregation, and elected a white supremacist in response to our first black president—but eventually we can shake this part of our history loose, too. Just because guns are a part of our legacy, that doesn’t mean they have to be a part of our future.

I have to believe that we can realize that. Because the alternative—that we keep bleeding American lives just to prove that we can—is too gruesome to bear.

 

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Justice

Pregnant Immigrants Say They’ve Been Denied Medical Care in Detention Centers

According to Jennye Pagoada López, when she arrived on July 23 at the US-Mexico border, she was four months pregnant and bleeding. Seeking political asylum, Pagoada hoped to finally put an end to nearly 20 years of violence she and her family had suffered at the hands of the notorious gang Barrio 18—first in Honduras, then in El Salvador.

But instead of finding a new life in America, Pagoada was detained shortly after crossing the border and then sent to the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. Six days later, Pagoada says, she suffered a miscarriage, after being denied proper medical care. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims she was never pregnant while in their custody.

The detention of pregnant women is a growing concern among immigrant rights groups. On September 26, a coalition of seven groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s Refugee Commission, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regarding the treatment of pregnant immigrants. The complaint cites media reports that 292 pregnant women were detained by ICE in just the first four months of 2017, a 35 percent increase compared to the same period in 2016.

The signatories write that they are “gravely concerned” with the conditions reported by pregnant women detained across the country, and with “the lack of quality medical care” provided. “In several of the cases, there is concern that women are receiving inadequate and sub-standard medical care during and after miscarriage,” the complaint reads. “In every instance, the women express concern that the conditions of their detention and pressure of preparing for their legal cases in detention has had a harmful impact on their pregnancies.”

The groups argue that these detentions contradict ICE’s own policy. An August 2016 ICE memorandum authored by the current acting director of the agency, Thomas Homan, instructs that “pregnant women will generally not be detained” unless there are “extraordinary circumstances or the requirement of mandatory detention.”

***

When Pagoada turned herself in at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, she expected to be released in accordance with this policy. She was escorted to the border by Luis Guerra, a legal advocate with the United Farm Workers Foundation. Advocates say they have repeatedly witnessed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) telling immigrants that “political asylum doesn’t exist” and turning them away. As a result, immigrant rights groups were redoubling efforts to ensure that when people like Pagoada arrived, someone was present to help them obtain their legal right to claim asylum.

Guerra says that both he and Pagoada informed the CBP officers that she had a high-risk pregnancy and should receive immediate parole and access to medical care. Three days later, he learned that Pagoada was being held by ICE at Otay Mesa. Guerra and Allegra Love, an attorney with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, asked that Pagoada be taken immediately to a hospital for prenatal treatment. She had continued complaining of vaginal bleeding as well as stomach and lower back pain. Love again cited the August 2016 ICE memorandum and said the facility was violating its own policy. “I sent the request to every officer who could possibly have influence on her case,” says Love. “I was ignored.”

Pagoada told her attorneys that on her sixth day at Otay Mesa the medical staff said she wasn’t pregnant. According to ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack, “All of the appropriate protocols were followed and the medical tests did not support [Pagoada’s] claim that she was pregnant” while in the agency’s custody. Love disputes this assertion, noting that the test results were never communicated to counsel despite repeated instances of her and Guerra advocating for Pagoada’s prenatal care.

Pagoada’s case is among the ten included in the complaint filed with DHS, as are those of five women who were detained in the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) in Dilley, Texas. Katy Murdza of the CARA Pro Bono Project has worked at STFRC as the advocacy coordinator for the past four months. Until recently, Murdza says, most pregnant women were released immediately at the border or within 24 hours, and would then receive a date to go before an immigration judge. This approach didn’t mean that the women got “a free pass to live in the US forever, or that they won asylum. It just meant they would go before an immigration court at a later date,” says Murdza. The majority of women who are released live with family or friends—a healthier environment than detention and also far less costly to taxpayers than detention.

In June, the Trump administration scrapped an Obama-era case management program offering alternatives to detention, which had a 99 percent compliance rate with immigration court appearances at a cost of about $36 a day per family. Since then, Murdza says, the number of pregnant immigrants detained at STFRC has risen. “Now we’re seeing about one pregnant person per day, and thirty since mid-August,” she says. “Almost none of these folks are paroled quickly anymore.”

Murdza describes pregnant women struggling with various kinds of stress and trauma in detention. Some are in the US because they are fleeing torture, abuse, or rape (and in some cases learn in detention that their rape resulted in pregnancy); some are trying to care for their children who are also struggling with detention and recent trauma; some have miscarried in the past due to stress or depression, and now fear a repeat due to their current circumstances; and there is little rest since detainees are sharing rooms with so many people, many of whom are sick.

Then there is an overlying stress for all pregnant asylum seekers: they face an interview to determine if they have a “credible fear” of returning to their birth country. Flunk that test, and they can be deported to the country that they just escaped.

***

Pagoada’s credible fear interview occurred one week after her miscarriage, according to Love and Guerra. They claim that at the time of the interview, she still hadn’t received proper medical care, was severely depressed, and had had only one visit from a counselor—to determine if she was suicidal.

According to Guerra, Pagoada experienced numerous traumas prior to seeking protection from the United States; they include multiple sexual abuses, one perpetrated when she was an adolescent living in Honduras by her stepfather who had ties to Barrio 18, according to Guerra. At that time, the family reported Pagoada’s stepfather to the police but he escaped custody. Shortly thereafter the death threats began, and a cousin who shared her surname was kidnapped and murdered. Pagaoda and her mother fled to El Salvador, while her brother remained behind and worked.

In El Salvador, Guerra says, Pagoada received phone calls extorting her to pay protection money or she and her brother would be killed. Late last year, her brother joined Pagoada and their mother in El Salvador. Within a few days of his arrival, members of Barrio 18 tortured him and mutilated his body. Pagoada and her mother were only able to identify him by a tattoo of the mother’s name. After fleeing for Mexico, they were still unable to escape violence. Staying at a shelter, Pagoada was assaulted by a man that they feared also had ties to the gang. When she learned she was pregnant, Pagoada decided to seek asylum in the US, hoping she would finally rid her and the baby she was expecting of the violence that had long plagued her.

But the asylum officer declined to find that Pagoada had a “positive credible fear” of returning to her birth country, and so she was scheduled for “removal.” Guerra believes that determination was due to the fact that Pagoada focused only on her most recent trauma—her brother’s murder—in the interview. With just one day until her deportation, Guerra and Love successfully obtained a second interview for her, saying that she had not been fit “medically, physically, or emotionally” for the first interview, and that she had not been able to tell her entire story. This time Pagoada talked about her life in Honduras, and the officer determined she had a “positive credible fear” of returning there.

Guerra and Love argue that the determination—along with the fact that she isn’t a flight risk and doesn’t pose a threat to public safety—again suggest that Pagoada should be released under ICE’s own guidelines. But nearly three months since she came to the country seeking asylum, Pagoada remains in detention. Pagoada says that she still needs medical care—she is suffering from depression, frequent headaches and vomiting, and numbness in her face. According to Guerra, as of October 1, she still hadn’t seen a doctor outside of Otay Mesa, despite repeated assurances that she would be able to do so. ICE maintains that like every detainee, Pagoada received a screening by medical staff to determine medical, dental, and mental health status within the first 12 hours of arrival into the detention facility; according to ICE, detainees are referred to off-site specialists as determined by their on-site primary care providers.

An ICE spokesperson says the August 2016 memorandum stipulating that pregnant women will not be detained absent extraordinary circumstances remains current policy. But advocates see evidence of a new, brutal era in immigration enforcement. “This is about the Trump Administration making it as hard as possible for immigrants to come here, even for pregnant women seeking political asylum,” says Love.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General and Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties are responsible for investigating the complaint filed on behalf of Pagoada and the nine other women. Regardless of the outcome, for Pagoada that investigation is too little, too late.

This article was produced in partnership with The Nation.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to “Barrio 18” as “MS-18.”

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Media and Politics

The Other Repeal and Replace Effort Taking Place in D.C.

When D.C.’s paid leave proposal passed into law earlier this year, it was widely regarded as one of the most generous packages of its kind. But now, some of the same legislators who passed the bill—known as the Universal Paid Leave Act (UPLA)—are attempting to overhaul it, jeopardizing its ability to deliver long-awaited benefits to D.C. workers.

The bill passed by the D.C. Council goes into effect in 2020, granting eligible workers eight weeks of paid leave per year for a new child, six weeks toward care for an ill relative, and two weeks to attend to a temporary disability. It is the product of a two-year battle between advocates, who originally proposed 16 weeks of paid leave funded through a payroll tax, and a business lobby that fought for half as much leave with unclear funding mechanisms.

But since the UPLA became law in April—without the signature of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who cited concerns about the tax it imposes and the fact that it creates a new bureaucracy—four Council members have come forward with proposals to overhaul how the program is administered. Although the bills that have gained the most traction don’t reduce the length of paid leave or the wage replacement rate, they introduce new systems that threaten to compromise workers’ ability to actually access their benefits.

Under the current law, benefits will be funded by a 0.62 percent payroll tax paid by employers. The D.C. government will administer the program in its entirety, meaning that workers will submit paid leave requests to and receive benefits from a government agency instead of negotiating them with their employers. This model is a boon to workers, many of whom have seen requests for paid leave denied by managers.

But, at the behest of business and trade associations, multiple D.C. Council members have introduced alternatives to the UPLA that replace the centralized system in current law with one that gives control to individual employers––in many cases, the same employers who opposed the paid leave bill in the first place. Under the bulk of these proposals—there are five in total—employers pay significantly less in payroll taxes (in some cases a rate of just .1 percent), and instead either pay for paid leave benefits out of pocket or purchase private insurance.

This system—termed the employer mandate—replaces the predictable payroll tax with an unknown, and likely very volatile, cost to employers, who will have to pay for paid leave out of pocket, and can’t predict when employees will need to access their benefits. Because businesses’ profit margins are on the line, it creates a powerful incentive for employers to discriminate against the workers who are most likely to need to take time off from work. Currently, it isn’t uncommon for employers to pay these workers less, fire them, or just not hire them in the first place, rather than provide them paid leave. For low-wage earners, who are more often subject to intimidation by employers, the stakes are especially high.

In the United States, paid family leave is uniquely difficult to come by—unlike in literally every other industrialized country, where it’s guaranteed to workers. Only a handful of states (and now D.C.) have such laws on the books, and the majority of the nation’s employees are faced with untenable decisions between a paycheck and critical time off to care for themselves, a relative, or a newborn. On the flipside, when people have access to paid leave, their labor force participation rates improve, alongside their economic security and their health outcomes.

D.C. workers had been promised one of the nation’s strongest paid leave programs, and a full 82 percent of D.C. residents––who also, after all, live in one of the nation’s most progressive hubs––support it. But under these new proposals, some of the workers who need those benefits the most may never receive them.

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Culture

How Hurricane Response Efforts Are Sorting People into Deserving and Undeserving Poor

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey delivered a devastating one-two punch to Texas and Florida, forcing millions to evacuate and leaving thousands displaced. Now, as emergency responders try to help hurricane victims cope with the aftermath of the storm, previously homeless residents are taking a particularly hard hit.

In Florida, as officials rushed to open emergency shelters for those forced from their homes by Irma, some residents who had been homeless before the hurricane were forced to wear bright yellow bracelets to mark their status. In St. Augustine, previously homeless people reported that they were not only forced to wear wristbands, but that authorities warned newly homeless hurricane victims to stay away from people with the yellow bracelets because they were criminals, thieves, and drug users. One woman described her experience to a local service provider this way: “They treated me like I was non-human, insulted me and others … [They] separated us from other people.”

In New Smyrna Beach, Florida, a community volunteer said that previously homeless people—including some in wheelchairs—were turned away from hurricane shelters and later directed to the Volusia County Fairgrounds, which served as a segregated shelter for pre-hurricane homeless people. A homeless man in Daytona Beach said, “[We] were treated like animals … like we got a disease or something.”

The unequal treatment of “pre-hurricane homeless” people versus “hurricane homeless” people was not unique to Florida. One Houston service provider told me, “There was definitely a treatment of people who had been homeless prior to the storm that was different … [they were] told that they needed to go to agencies that are part of the city homeless service system, rather than receive services within the [hurricane] shelter.”  They were then de-prioritized for assistance too, as a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency wrote in an email to Reuters: “If an individual was homeless pre-disaster, they may not be considered for Housing Assistance and Other Needs Assistance, which both require successful verification of pre-disaster occupancy.”

The reality is, none of the people who were homeless before the storms were living “pre-disaster” lives. Before the hurricanes struck, they had already fallen victim to more routine disasters: a lost job, eviction, health crisis, domestic violence, untreated addiction, or mental illness. Any of these can lead to homelessness because of the manmade disaster that is the biggest driving cause of homelessness today: the crisis in affordable housing.

After decades of cuts to federal housing programs—which shrank as a share of gross domestic product by 30 percent between 1996 and 2016—only 1 in 4 of those who are poor enough to qualify for housing assistance currently receive it. At the same time, as many cities experience luxury development booms, lower-income people are being displaced from the private housing market. As inequality deepens, poorer Americans must crash with families and friends, live in their cars, seek refuge in emergency shelters, or try to survive on the streets.

Some of us are both more vulnerable and more likely to be excluded from help and human decency.

For those living in public, there is also the risk of being fined, arrested, and even jailed. Increasingly, cities across the country are passing and enforcing laws that make it a crime to sit, sleep, and even eat in public places. Over the past ten years, such laws have increased dramatically the throughout country—including in some of the same cities that rushed to the aid of hurricane victims.

In Houston, some 6,000 people were homeless pre-Harvey, and emergency shelters had long been full. But instead of helping homeless residents, the city passed a new law just before the storm making it a crime to sleep on the street—punishable by fine, arrest, and incarceration.

The slew of storms will now worsen the already tight housing market—the destruction of millions of properties will increase demand and drive rents higher. This will likely hit low-income people particularly hard, since they are more likely to live in flood-prone areas or in shoddy, unsafe housing, making their residences particularly vulnerable to ruin. Not surprisingly, these disasters disproportionately affect people of color, who are not only more likely to be poor, but also more likely to be homeless. Those unable to receive housing assistance will be left to fight for space in overflowing emergency shelters or to live on the streets.

People often come together with generosity in the face of natural disasters, as they can remind us that we are all vulnerable to nature. But as Harvey, Irma, Jose, and now Maria have shown, the reality is that some of us are both more vulnerable and more likely to be excluded from help and human decency.

A coalition of organizations is now advocating for new policies to ensure a fair and just recovery—and to prevent those who are most vulnerable from being stigmatized, excluded, and tagged with special bracelets during future natural disasters. Responses to natural disasters must be equitable, both during and after the crisis. They must recognize the needs—and humanity—of those made homeless by natural disasters and those made homeless by manmade disasters.

Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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