What Doug Jones’ Win Means for People in Poverty

Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama Senate race is just over a day old, but the hot takes are still pouring in. For some, the outcome is a signal that Democrats can win both houses of Congress in 2018. For others, it is an outlier—a race that a Republican not accused of sexually assaulting children would have easily won. And for the kind folks at Fox & Friends, it wasn’t much of a win at all—“a referendum on Harvey Weinstein, not on President Trump.”

The only thing not up for debate is why Jones won: It’s because people of color—particularly African Americans from Alabama’s impoverished “Black Belt”—turned out to vote for him. But lost in the political discussion of the election is one key question: What does the election mean for the lives of Alabamans—especially the millions who voted for Doug Jones?

The state Doug Jones now represents is one of the poorest in the country. According to the latest county health rankings report, nearly 2,900 Alabamians died prematurely—in large part due to the toxic conditions within the state. The state’s school quality report card shows that it lags behind the national average, with a solid D for K-12 achievement, and more than a quarter of residents are struggling to pay their water bill, which is an average of just $32.09 a month.

The state’s poor rural residents—disproportionately people of color—face conditions that recently stunned investigators from the United Nations. In a damning report on the living conditions in Alabama’s Lowndes and Butler counties, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights found communities suffering from hookworm outbreaks—a parasitic illness that was thought to have been eradicated in the United States more than 30 years ago. Known as a disease born of extreme poverty, researchers have linked the resurgence of hookworm in Alabama’s Lowndes and Butler counties to the broken and inadequate septic infrastructure that creates open cesspools of raw sewage in residents’ backyards.

More than a quarter of residents are struggling to pay their water bill

Lowndes county, much like the rest of Alabama, has a long and brutal history of racism and inequality. Nicknamed “Bloody Lowndes,” the county is most known for its violent opposition to the civil rights movement and extreme racial oppression. It remains a hot spot of poor health, premature death, callous neglect, and severe disenfranchisement that harkens back 150 years to the time when it was part of the bedrock of the South’s slave economy. The historical and ongoing plight of counties like Lowndes highlight the dogged mistreatment of vulnerable communities who can least afford it.

The tax bill currently making its way through Congress would exacerbate inequality in one of the most unequal states in the country. By 2027, it would raise taxes on 87 million Americans—including more than 640,000 Alabamans. It would repeal the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act—jeopardizing health care coverage for 183,000 Alabama residents, a disproportionately high number—and strip the state of $419 million in Medicare funding next year alone.

The tax bill would also pave the way for deep cuts to benefit programs that keep people out of poverty. As House Speaker Paul Ryan signaled in a radio interview last week, House Republicans are planning on moving forward with deep cuts to so-called “entitlement programs” (permanent programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security) next year and have been quietly convincing President Trump to support the effort. “I think the president is understanding that choice and competition works everywhere in health care, especially in Medicare,” Ryan said. With an aging population and a disproportionate number of people in poverty, Alabama is particularly vulnerable to these cuts.

It’s rare for a political victory to immediately benefit its voters. Major national legislation can take decades to cobble together and is often passed with votes to spare after months of debate. But in Doug Jones’ case, his Senate win could help stop one of the biggest shots of inequality adrenaline the country has ever seen—one that will hit Alabama particularly hard. And, while far from guaranteed, the election could jeopardize Senate Republicans’ chances of passing the bill this year.

The people of Alabama turned out in record numbers on Tuesday. Now it’s up to Jones to make sure his supporters aren’t openly attacked in the coming legislative onslaught.



For the Cost of the Tax Bill, the U.S. Could Eliminate Child Poverty. Twice.

Congressional Republicans are rushing to finalize their tax legislation before the holidays. They haven’t held a single hearing, in part because their plan is one of the least popular pieces of legislation ever. It’s easy to see why: The Senate version of the bill would raise taxes on most families making $75,000 or less per year by 2027, while tying a big bow on permanent tax cuts for millionaires and large corporations. And after years of panicking over the size of the deficit, Republican leaders are now planning to balloon it by a whopping $1.5 trillion over the coming decade.

That tells you a lot about Congress’ priorities—especially since, for less than the cost of the Republican tax plan, Congress could eliminate child poverty in the United States. Twice.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 5.7 million poor families with children would need an average of $11,400 more to live above the poverty line in 2016. In total, the income needed to boost these families—along with the additional 105,000 children who were not living with their families—above the federal poverty level is about $69.4 billion per year in today’s dollars. Over ten years, that adds up to about 46 percent of what Congress plans to spend on its tax plan. There would be so much money left over after we boosted these kids out of poverty that the United States could also pay tuition and fees for all of them to get an in-state education at a four-year public university, and it still wouldn’t costs as much as the tax plan.

If Congress wanted to really let loose, and spend just 12 percent more than the tax bill does—for a total of $1.74 trillion—we could completely eliminate all poverty in America.

But instead of reducing poverty in the United States, Congressional Republicans are chipping away at the existing programs that support low-income people. Congress was so fixated on repealing the Affordable Care Act this summer that it ran out of time to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which insures 9 million kids. It has been 73 days since CHIP’s funding expired, and more than half of states could run out of money in the first months of 2018. Some are already paring back services in preparation.

Child poverty costs the United States an estimated $672 billion per year

And now, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his fellow Congressional Republicans have announced that their next priority is cutting critical programs such as Medicaid, which provides health care to 2 in 5 U.S. children, and Social Security, which is the nation’s largest children’s anti-poverty program. To pave the way for these cuts, Ryan and friends are already rolling out poisonous rhetoric that paints low-income families as lazy and idle—even though Census data show that most families with children living in poverty do work, and are just being paid so little they can’t make ends meet.

These policies are obviously cruel. But, for a group of lawmakers who fancy themselves business-minded, they’re also stunningly financially irresponsible. Child poverty costs the United States a lot of money: an estimated $672 billion per year in lost productivity, worse health outcomes, and increased criminal activity.

Instead, congressional Republicans are choosing to saddle the nation’s kids with debt—the very thing they’ve repeatedly accused past administrations of doing—to finance a massive giveaway to the wealthy.



The Happiest City in the U.S. Has a Secret

How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?… I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.

– Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Earlier this year, National Geographic published an article claiming to have discovered the 25 happiest cities in the United States. The measurements were based on a scale developed by Gallup, with input from Dan Buettner, who has spent decades traveling the globe in pursuit of the roots of happiness. Even with all that experience, Buettner’s findings (reported in the article by George Stone) seem to overlook one glaring problem: American happiness appears to be rich and white.

The city that tops Nat Geo’s list this year is Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains, known for its biking paths, clean air, and youthful population; the latter of which can be attributed to the fact that it is home to the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) and Naropa University, in addition to several specialty and trade schools. Naropa University includes the writing school that was founded by beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. It’s also where I attended grad school.

Before I moved to the city, I had farewell drinks with a friend and a schoolmate he brought along, an Asian woman who spent one short academic year at CU before bolting.

“It’s the most racist place I’ve ever been,” she told me upon learning where I would soon be moving. “Everyone there is white, and if you’re not,” she swiped her hand through the air as though swatting away a bug. “It was like being Asian made me an alien,” she added.

‘It’s the most racist place I’ve ever been’

There was a moment of silence as I thought about my Cuban heritage, and whether I’d fit into the city that Nat Geo this year described as “bolstered by a sense of community, access to nature, sustainable urban development and preservation policies.”

Then my friend (a white gay man, if you’re wondering), said, “Oh, don’t worry, you pass.” Ultimately, he’s right. I do “pass.” My skin is olive-toned but not brown, my eyes are hazel, and my hair is a shade that in Latino communities is considered rubio, which roughly translates in English to blonde. I did not personally experience the racial alienation my drinking partner described that evening, but I saw and experienced other events that made the generous smiles, the lavish, clear-aired sunsets, and the folded yogis in the parks all seem like part of a deeply exclusionary facade.

     *                            *                            *

In the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” author Ursula Le Guin describes a city of immense but ambiguous happiness, where “the air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky.” There, in Omelas, the people “were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched.” But buried somewhere out of sight, in a small windowless room, an emaciated child sits alone. Le Guin describes its fear and decrepitude; the terrible squalor of its existence, and the feeble, hopeless waste of its mind and body. The child is always referred to as “it,” because to imagine an actual human being treated this way is beyond comprehension.

But, Le Guin explains, the people of Omelas have had to make a choice. “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done … that would be to let guilt within the walls.”

And so the Omelans reason that it is simply a matter of math. Every life in the city stays joyful and beautiful—and the one that is not is hidden.

     *                            *                            *

National Geographic writes that in the happiest places, “locals smile and laugh more often, socialize several hours a day, have access to green spaces, and feel that they are making purposeful progress toward achieving life goals.”

This type of happiness, the article admits, relies upon wealth. What it doesn’t mention outright, however, is that for an entire city to be dubbed “the happiest,” poverty cannot play a significant factor. In Boulder’s case, this is not because the social problems that cause poverty have been fixed, but because the poor have been pushed out.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 88 percent of Boulder is single-racial white. The median single-household income is just under $60,000, and the mean a whopping $90,000. Median monthly housing costs are reported at $1,320, with the number of renters and homeowners roughly the same (in 2015, there were only about 2,000 more renters than homeowners). This should be surprising, considering the fact that Boulder houses two universities, and the average student does not own the home she lives in. While I was there, I watched a slow, quiet change take place; one that I doubt many of my mostly white and affluent grad school cohorts noticed. It was something I saw not from my vantage point as a grad student at the Jack Kerouac School, but as someone addicted to heroin, who would, while in Boulder, eventually become homeless, pregnant, and on methadone.

First, the natural food markets—which were more available than average grocery stores—began stocking security guards alongside their expensive, organic products. Then the city discretely installed security cameras near the Boulder Public Library, which were able to spy on Central Park—once a favorite hangout spot for the city’s small homeless population. Wayne, a local methadone patient who asked me to change his name for privacy purposes, tells me there is no longer a homeless presence at that location—or, he says, much of anywhere in Boulder. That’s not surprising, since the city passed several ordinances that essentially prohibit homelessness: They outlaw sleeping in vehicles,aggressive begging,” and public camping.

My methadone clinic used to be located just off Pearl Street, the beflowered street pictured in Nat Geo’s article.  A short while after I left the clinic in late 2012, it moved from Boulder to Longmont—Boulder’s poorer, browner neighbor to the north. It remains there, in a large, unattached building that stands near several bus lines but away from any downtown area. Wayne has been a client there since August of this year, previously attending the sister location in Denver. He was never a patient at the Boulder location, but works as an Uber driver and tells me over Facebook that the attitude toward addiction and poverty has shifted dramatically in Boulder over the past several years.

“The influx of new wealthy people from all over the country … has made people more judgmental and ignorant,” he says.

Perhaps we have known, all along, that money does in fact buy happiness.

And what of the other cities that top National Geographic’s list? Number two is Watsonville, California. Although Santa Cruz County, where Watsonville is located, hosts a heavily Hispanic and Latino population, Watsonville itself is, again, mostly white—a shift that has climbed steadily since 2010. Rent averages around the same as in Boulder. Charlottesville, Virginia, earned third-place on the measure of happiness, even after making national headlines for hosting a violent white nationalist rally. It is around 70 percent white, with a mean household income just under $90,000.

Perhaps these facts are not surprising. Perhaps we have known, all along, that money does in fact buy happiness.

When I look at the photos and blog posts from my classmates who are still in Boulder, it appears relatively unchanged. Ravishing sunsets frame wine glasses adorned by a backdrop of lush mountains. Pearl Street’s clean red bricks look as pretty as I remember against the quaint boutiques that line the street. In these photos, everyone is smiling. It’s envy-inducing, for sure.

But then I remember how, when I was in Boulder just a few years back, the photo of Pearl Street that heads the Nat Geo article could not have been taken without a street performer or beggar in sight. How the methadone clinic was pushed north, and along with it, I’m sure, all of those clients seeking refuge from addiction. The measure of Boulder’s happiness is not only healthy eating and learning new skills, but also a practiced ignorance of those who are suffering or in need.

One thing I know there is none of in Boulder is guilt.


First Person

My Family Fled to the U.S. to Survive. We Deserve to Stay.

I grew up in Los Angeles and Seattle, but my siblings used to warn me not to reveal that we were from Mexico. They were afraid that we would be persecuted, deported, and separated from one another, so they made sure I knew about the possible repercussions of being undocumented. But that doesn’t mean I fully understood it—I couldn’t really comprehend the extent to which it would impact our lives practically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I learned what it meant, piece by piece. It meant that my uncle couldn’t volunteer as a chaperone for an elementary school field trip, because a routine background check might give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) information it could use to deport him. It meant that when my fifth-grade teacher taught us about Social Security, I learned that our family didn’t have it. It meant introducing myself as “Caesar” rather than “Cesar,” and telling people I was born in Los Angeles. It meant working for a construction company that used my immigration status as leverage to pay me less, and demand that I work more.

One experience after another reminded me that our family could not expect safety or support in this country. We were not citizens, so we had no rights.

Nevertheless, my mother took it upon herself to ensure that we had what we needed. She’d work long hours cleaning houses, and sought out any resources she could find to provide us with school supplies, health services, and food. She could not always show physical love, because she was often absent, living out her love through the sacrifices that she made for us.

*          *          *

Like hundreds of thousands of other undocumented mothers, my mother came to the United States from Mexico in search of a better life for herself and her children. She didn’t come to this country to engage in sabotage, terrorism, or criminal activities. She was running from domestic violence, finally fed up with false promises of change. To survive, she left behind everything that she had ever known.

To survive, she left behind everything that she had ever known.

My mother had hope and resilience, stemming from a faith in God that the way things were could not possibly be the way things were meant to be. It’s what led her to make the dangerous trek into the United States. It’s what kept her going even when she and my brother got separated from me and my sister in a sudden sprint past the alambrado. It’s how she found the strength to swim out of sinking mud near the California border. It’s how she stayed calm when my brother pleaded for her to carry him, when she knew it would make them both drown. It’s how she urged him on, yelling “Tu puedes!” until they both reached the shore.

She walked for seven hours that night, without knowing the dangerous terrain or where they were heading. Eventually they came to a street with a few houses, and my mother picked one to knock on. A tall man answered, and—seeing how muddy and weary they were—he took them inside and gave them refuge for the night. The next morning, he fed them and let my mother use the phone to call my uncle and the coyote. Later that day, they reunited with me and my sister.

Before we could reach Santa Ana to meet up with my uncle, ICE detained our family and sent us back to Tijuana. But my mother tried again, and we finally made it to Santa Ana in 1994.

*          *          *

My mother has expected that I show the same effort and make the same sacrifices that come with seeking a better life. She was not going to let me take a year off between high school and college. I went to Texas Wesleyan University to study criminal justice, despite not knowing how we would pay for it—most scholarships require citizenship, so I was instantly disqualified.

I graduated in 2013, but even with DACA—which helped me work while I was an undergrad—I could not follow my desired career path. I wanted to serve as a police officer for my community—I wanted to be a homicide detective, and perhaps work for the FBI. I was denied all those possibilities. Instead, I worked for a few months in Loss Prevention for a Trader Joe’s warehouse through a temp agency.

At the same time, I was volunteering at the church I attended. Through that work, I realized that there were other ways of serving my community that many institutions in the United States were denying me. I applied to the Boston University School of Theology. I was accepted and received a full-tuition scholarship for the three-year Master of Divinity program. I graduated in May 2017, and now I serve my community in Washington state with the United Methodist Church—the same church that helped me apply for DACA half a decade ago.

*          *          *

The actions and rhetoric of the Trump administration have demonstrated that programs like DACA are not enough. There is no assurance against persecution; only the temporary illusion of safety with minimal benefits for our families and our communities.

We are more than currency. We are human beings.

In the wake of Trump’s decision to end DACA, some legislators have reintroduced the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for people like me who came to this country as children. Legislation like this must be passed if the United States wishes to fight for freedom, liberty, and justice for all. There are already plentiful economic benefits for the United States—we pay taxes and boost profits, and private businesses still find ways to exploit undocumented workers for their benefit.

But we are more than currency. We are human beings. Even the DREAM Act promises too little for too small a group. It excludes people like my mother and uncle because arbitrary and racist laws have made immigration an illegal act. We must do more.



Net Neutrality Is the Free Speech Fight of Our Generation

Last week, the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a plan to effectively end net neutrality. To help unpack what this means for regular people who use the internet, I spoke with Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation.

Rebecca Vallas: So just to kick us off, net neutrality is one of those wonky terms that doesn’t even sound like English. Help us understand—what is net neutrality?

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I think this fight around net neutrality is the free speech fight of our generation. Net neutrality is essentially the principal that all internet traffic should be treated equally. It prevents internet service providers from charging a premium for access to internet “fast lanes” or slamming the breaks on content that poses a threat to their financial or political interests.

I like the expression “the open internet,” the internet democracy. Net neutrality keeps the internet open, free, and fair; it preserves a level playing field where good ideas can prosper no matter who or where they come from. The free, democratic internet plays an essential role in our civic dialogue. And that’s why the FCC in 2015 passed rules to protect net neutrality, reclassify the internet as a public utility, and enforce the rules of a level playing field. The Trump FCC is trying to eliminate even the most basic net neutrality protections that were put in place. These would include the ban on blocking, replacing them with a “transparency” regime enforced by the FCC. Transparency is a euphemism for doing nothing. A broadband carrier like AT&T, if it wanted, might even practice internet censorship akin to that of the Chinese state, blocking its critics and promoting its own agenda. Allowing such censorship is anathema to the internet’s and America’s founding spirit.

A free internet can amplify those who don’t have the money or power in our unequal society

There are some legal scholars who believe that by going this far in trying to overturn rules put in place under the Obama administration, the FCC may have overplayed its legal hand, and that this will go to the courts because government agencies aren’t free to abruptly reverse long-standing rules on which many have relied without a good reason. A mere change in FCC ideology isn’t enough. And I think we can talk a little bit about the activism that we’re going to see because the future of the internet is at stake on December 14, when former Verizon attorney Ajit Pai, chosen by Trump to chair the FCC, is going to force a vote on ending net neutrality.

RV: The main focus in the media since the announcement from the FCC last week has largely been on the battle between the so-called telecom titans, Comcast and AT&T, Verizon, and the internet giants, Google, Amazon, Facebook. But as you’re describing, there’s a lot more at play than who is going to win a big corporate tug of war—this is going to have real consequences for regular people who use the internet.

KVH: There is a corporatism at work here—the media monopolists in the telecom industry hate net neutrality. They’ve worked for years to overturn guarantees of an open internet because it gets in the way of profits. Now, if net neutrality is eliminated, these media monopolists will restructure how the internet works, creating information super-highways for corporate and political elites and digital dirt roads for those who can’t afford the corporate tolls. It’s fair to say that you’re witnessing a regime change where if Pai at the FCC is successful, he’s going to hand the keys to our open internet to major corporations to charge more for this tiered system. So it will, along with the tax bill—which will make our lives more unequal, more dirty, more unhealthy—you may well see a tiered system where powerful websites can pay to have their content delivered faster to consumers.

There’s another argument that’s been thrown out there, which is that the FCC chair says that he’s trying to make sure that new investment goes into the internet. He’s claiming that industry investments have gone down since 2015, the year the Obama administration last strengthened the net neutrality rules. Wrong, it’s just not the case. But let me step back and just ask, why should industry investments be the dominant measure of success in internet policy? Why is that the measure? What about improved access for students, or the emergence of innovations like streaming TV? So I think there’s a lot of skewing, a lot of false information being thrown around as the FCC tries to steamroll through changes that will impact and harm consumers, people with less access to capital, students, independent media, alternative voices, so there’s a real First Amendment free speech issue here, too.

RV: Some, including W. Kamau Bell, have pointed out that the end of net neutrality could be particularly devastating for artists and activists by effectively silencing the voices of people who aren’t already established or backed by those with power. He points out in an op-ed in The New York Times, “This fair internet, where everyone from an amateur comedian to a celebrity to a huge media company plays by the same rules, means you don’t need a lot of money or the backing of someone with power to share your content with the world.” And he names the example of Issa Rae, who started the web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” which started as a YouTube series in 2011 but has now actually become a show, “Insecure,” that’s got its third season happening on HBO. It’s hard to imagine that happening in a world that doesn’t have net neutrality.

KVH: What we’re witnessing is more than a regulatory shift. It’s more than a story that should be consigned to the business pages. This is about a societal change. And if the FCC allows this digital profiteering to define the internet, it will affect all of what you spoke of, it will affect personal communications, education, commerce, economic arrangement, our politics and democracy itself. And it is a civil rights issue in a fundamental way because it’s about whose voice is heard. The most vulnerable are usually those who have a harder time making their voices heard, and a free internet lifts up and can amplify those who don’t have the money or power in our unequal society.

What we’re witnessing is more than a regulatory shift

So this is a real fight for the kind of society we want to be, and I think that needs to be understood as we move to oppose not just the net neutrality decision. The FCC is beginning to overturn efforts to close the digital divide between wealthy and poor Americans, they’re declaring war on consumers, and in what I think is one of the most callous steps, the FCC abandoned an effort to limit the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls that sometimes force inmates’ families to pay upward of a dollar a minute to speak to their loved ones. So there is a real rollback of humanism as corporatism ascends.

This is a fire sale for humongous corporate interests, for the monopolists of the telecom world.  There are going to be protests December 7 in advance of the December 14 FCC vote targeting the offices of corporations that have opposed net neutrality such as Verizon. There are going to be protests against offices of members of Congress who have opposed net neutrality. There will be marches on the FCC both digitally and on the streets, and there are legal and legislative strategies to defend the internet and the future.

RV: The politics on this as well are somewhat baffling, because obviously this is part of a larger deregulation agenda. But it also just seems a little bit odd frankly, coming from an administration that has taken the exact opposite position on other issues related to competition. I’m thinking here specifically about the Time Warner-AT&T merger. It was literally just one day before the FCC announcement on net neutrality that the Trump justice department announced its opposition to the proposed merger.

KVH: It’s incoherent. The reality is if you’re a strong supporter of free markets, net neutrality is what allows for competition and free market in the broadband space. If you’re someone who strongly supports free speech and freedom of expression, net neutrality is what prevents companies like Comcast that own NBC from prioritizing or censoring content online. I think there is a split in the progressive community about the Trump administration’s move on the merger.

What is chilling, however, is a personal vendetta against CNN. It looks like what we’ve seen too often from this administration, a politicization of the tools of justice, privatization of justice for the sake of an administration. So there is an incoherence that is puzzling, but what is not puzzling is that the dismantling of the administrative state, the march through the institutions, the deregulatory crusade is in full throttle. And what we’re witnessing with the FCC is in sync with that. In that sense there is a coherence to this deregulation of all kinds of reforms that have brought us clean air, clean water, and a free and democratic internet.

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on December 1. It was edited for length and clarity.