A Texas university uses value and smarts to keep students enrolled

In a world of skyrocketing college tuition and spiraling student debt, the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) is resolutely affordable. 

Located in Edinburg, Texas, an hour from the U.S.-Mexico border, UTRGV is a new school formed in 2013 from a merger of new campuses and legacy institutions. It enrolls a student body that is more than 90 percent Hispanic and heavily first-generation. The school’s mascot is the workingman Vaquero, Spanish for “cowboy” or “cattle driver,” who dons full ranching attire, including gloves, scarf, and boots. Designed by students, the mascot’s costume is full of subtle messaging, like blue-stitching on the vaquero’s boots to symbolize the Rio Grande river joining Mexico and the U.S.

More than 60 percent of students at UTRGV have incomes low enough to qualify for Pell grants. Yet, says President Guy Bailey, “Over half of our students who are undergraduates don’t pay any tuition or fees. Most of our students who qualify for Pell grants pay nothing.”  

Read more at Washington Monthly….

Would you trust a used car dealer with your tax refund?

At the Car-Mart in Rogers, Arkansas, or at 150 other Car-Mart locations nationwide, you can both buy a used car and get your taxes done. If that sounds like an unusual combination, it’s not. According to Car-Mart’s website, the used car dealership offers onsite tax preparation services through Tax Max, a Tampa-based company that works with a jaw-dropping 3,000 car dealerships across the country. Tax Max also works with money services businesses (such as check cashers), collections companies, and even mobile home dealers to help them capture a chunk of their customers’ tax refunds. This might be convenient for some, but it is very costly.

The Rogers Car-Mart, for instance, charges $149 to prepare a federal tax return, plus $49 for the state return, according to a salesperson I spoke with when I called recently. I’d also pay a $93 “bank fee” if I got a refund, plus a $27 “check printing fee” if I wanted an advance on my money instead of waiting for the IRS to cut the check. “So that would be a total of $318,” the clerk told me. That’s equal to 15 percent of this year’s average federal refund of $2,201.

And companies don’t just benefit from receiving a cut of these high fees when they partner with a tax preparer like Tax Max. (Auto dealers, for instance, can charge a $99 “dealership incentive fee” for every return they process.) A car dealership or another business can secure part or all of the tax refund itself. “We prepare your customer’s tax return, but your location receives the refund,” boasts the Tax Max site pitch to prospective partners. “This refund can be used for a down payment on a car and/or car insurance. This refund can also be used to collect on past-due obligations by a collection company. The refund may also be used as a down payment for a manufactured home. Some companies can generate revenue by cashing the checks.” 

Read more at Washington Monthly

Once a pandemic lifeline, universal access to free lunch could end

Throughout the pandemic, Donna Martin’s lunches have been a lifeline for the public school students in rural Burke County, Georgia, where she serves as nutrition director. One in five citizens lives in poverty in this east Georgia county of roughly 25,000, half an hour south of Augusta. Nearly two-thirds of the district’s 4,100 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (meaning that family incomes fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty line).

Martin says the meals her staff prepares (breakfast, lunch, and even dinner) are often the healthiest—and sometimes the only—food her students see each day. “Our kids are food insecure, and they’re hungry,” she said. “But we offer amazing food, and we offer a lot of choices every day.” On the Monday we spoke, the menu included turkey tetrazzini, broccoli, and carrot sticks with homemade ranch dressing, and made-from-scratch strawberry muffins. “And we have ‘fruit-mallow,’ which is one of my favorites,” Martin said. “It’s fruit cocktail, but it’s got extra cherries and marshmallows, which the kids really like.” 

But providing nutritious, tasty meals like these could soon get a lot harder for Martin and her staff, who’ve already been scrambling to manage supply chain disruptions and soaring costs as the pandemic has worn on. “Our food prices have gone up 25 percent,” Martin says.

Read more at Washington Monthly…

Glenn Youngkin goes full MAGA

In contrast to his campaign persona as a genial, fleece-wearing dad, newly elected Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia has spent his first few weeks in office as a MAGA warrior.

His day-one executive orders canceled school mask mandates and banned the teaching of “critical race theory.” He established a snitchy tip line for citizens’ “reports and observations” of “divisive practices” in the classroom. He nominated Donald Trump–aligned figures to populate his administration, such as the former Trump EPA chief (and coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler. And he unleashed savage Trump-style Twitter attacks on perceived enemies of his agenda. 

These moves have not gone over well in a purple state that has elected pragmatic moderates like U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and that gave Joe Biden a 10-point win in the 2020 presidential election. 

Read more at Washington Monthly….

Joe, you forgot about lowering the Medicare age

For middle-income older Americans who have lost their jobs and no longer get health insurance through work, buying coverage through Obamacare is often unaffordable. 

Medicare at 60 would solve many of the health care problems facing this suffering cohort. It would make about 23 million Americans newly eligible for the program, including about 2 million who are currently uninsured.

Read more at Washington Monthly….

How earmarks can strengthen Congress

When I was a staffer working in Congress, a good part of our time was spent on the annual appropriations process – including on earmarks for specific projects in the district the Congressman I worked for represented. If memory serves, the earmark requests the office submitted were for items like research funding for veterans’ health care; money to fund a new freezer at a local food pantry; or funding to build a new health care clinic in a disadvantaged part of district. They weren’t for “pork” – like the famed “Bridges to Nowhere” that earmark critics like to mock.

Earmarks have gotten an undeserved bad rap. And, as I argue, earmarks could be key to bringing back a working – and civil – Congress. Read more here at Washington Monthly.

The phony conservative attacks on child tax credits

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Congress has groundbreaking provisions to provide an expanded child tax credit – on a monthly basis – to all American families with children.

Some conservatives don’t like the idea of unconditional cash transfers to parents because they claim it would reduce “work.” What they’re really saying is that the hard labor of raising a child isn’t worthy of recognition, a stance I find infuriating.

Read more here at Washington Monthly.

It’s time for a federal mask standard

I admit – I’m obsessed with masks. I have three-layer cotton ones from Old Navy; two-layer cotton ones with a filter sewn inside; blue disposable masks bought in bulk from Costco; a precious stash of KF94s sent via my mom from relatives in Korea; and stylish nylon masks that promise “breathability” but seem a little too flimsy for comfort.

I have no idea which of these masks works. Lately, I’ve been double masking, as the CDC recommends, but are my two masks really effective? Some consumer labeling would be nice, as I argue here in Washington Monthly.