America’s Resilient Center and the Road to 2020

Via Progressive Policy Institute

For the past two years, many people have fretted that American democracy was in its twilight. In 2016, voters elected as president Donald Trump, a volatile demagogue with a predilection for peddling conspiracy theories and a soft spot for dictators and white nationalism. Our politics seemed hopelessly polarized, with gridlock the new normal, seemingly into perpetuity.

The 2018 election, however, provided tangible proof that 2016 could be an aberration – a glitch but not a feature of the politics to come. Turnout broke modern records for midterm elections, including among first-time and youthful voters. But the real revolt came not from the activist base but from the suburbs, from a once quiescent but a newly resurgent center. Led by suburban women disgusted by Trump’s misogyny and blatant race baiting, suburban voters gave Democrats the lion’s share of their gains in the House – including among many districts that had voted for Trump in 2016. These districts handed Democrats their new majority, and their defection from a Trump-dominated Republican party creates an opportunity for Democrats to broaden their coalition and build a truly national party.

The crucial question now for Democrats is how to wield the power they now hold.

To help meet this challenge, PPI and Expedition Strategies surveyed 1,090 likely voters on the eve of this crucial election. Our goals were to gather data to put the current results into context and to gather clues about the kind of agenda progressives should craft as we barrel headlong into the 2020 presidential sweepstakes.

The good news for Democrats is that they have the potential to build a durable majority. In our poll,48 percent of respondents identified as Democrats or as independents who lean Democratic, while39 percent said they were Republicans or Republican leaners, and 13 percent were true independents, with no allegiance to either party.

But for Democrats to maintain and expand this near-majority advantage, they must craft a broadly appealing agenda that brings or keeps independents and less committed partisans – the majority of whom call themselves “moderate” – under the tent. Also vital will be winning over for the long term the suburban women who led the revolt against Trump. According to one poll by CNN immediately pre-election, 62 percent of women wanted Democrats to take control of Congress, and 63 percent disapproved of Donald Trump – sentiments these voters acted on with a vengeance, not only through their energetic turnout but by sending a record number of women to Congress. While our survey shows that women – and white college-educated women in particular – are more liberal and more Democratic than men or the electorate at large, the plurality of women are still “moderate,” and their views do not conform in many ways to those of the liberal activist Democratic base.

Continue reading at Progressive Policy Institute

How Opportunity Zones Could Transform Communities

The new federal program could lure fresh investment to distressed areas. But the clock is ticking.

Originally published in Governing, November 2018

Twenty years ago, the rural hamlet of South Boston, Va., was a thriving blue-collar, middle-class community. Most of its residents were employed in manufacturing, such as at the nearby Burlington Industries textile plant and Russell Stover candy factory, or out in the tobacco fields.

Today, the once vast tobacco industry is largely derelict (China is now the world’s leading producer), and the Burlington plant and Russell Stover factory are closed. “We lost about $100 million in payroll out of this community over four years,” says South Boston Town Manager Tom Raab.

This is a familiar story for the nation’s rural areas, but Raab is optimistic about a turnaround. He is pinning his hopes, in part, on the new “opportunity zones” program passed in last December’s federal tax overhaul. It could generate billions in economic development for distressed communities like South Boston — provided they get the help they need.

Opportunity zones represent a breakthrough approach to community development. The program relies on an ingenious mechanism for spurring investment: Instead of tax credits or other traditional subsidies, investors are offered a temporary tax deferral for capital gains reinvested in designated opportunity zones. For investments held longer than 10 years, that deferral becomes forgiveness — a huge boon.

Unlike under past tax credits, there’s no cap on the amount that can be invested. What’s more, the process is simple. Instead of purchasing tax credits through a secondary market, investors simply create a “qualified opportunity fund” as a vehicle for making investments. The Economic Innovation Group (EIG), which developed the opportunity zone concept, estimates that as much as $6.1 trillion in unrealized gains held by both corporations and households might be waiting to be tapped.

Figures like these, as well as the benefit’s structural advantages, are why states are hopeful. “We’ve already had a number of inquiries and meetings with potential investors,” says Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball. “A lot of businesses are looking for opportunities to reinvest.”

A couple of potential hazards, however, could derail the ability of places like South Boston to reap the program’s benefits. One is federal regulations on implementing the program, which the Treasury Department has yet to issue and finalize. Speed is of the essence here. Opportunity zones expire in 2026, and certain benefits are not available for investments made after 2019. Final regulations are expected early next year, but the current administration has proven anything but predictable.

A more significant hazard, however, is that both investors and opportunity zone communities will need extensive matchmaking to find each other. “A governor’s job doesn’t end with the zone selections — it begins,” says EIG co-founder John Lettieri. “You may not get a single dollar of investment if you don’t work for it.”

Therefore, states will need strategies for marketing and promoting their zones, as well as identifying promising investors and steering them toward the best opportunities. This kind of support will be vital for places like South Boston, which is competing against roughly 8,700 other opportunity zones for investment dollars.

As a community of under 8,000 people in rural south central Virginia, the town has no budget for slick promotional materials to court wealthy potential investors. Town leaders don’t rub elbows with Silicon Valley venture capitalists, either. Identifying investors, Raab says, is “one more ball to juggle” along with understanding the mechanics of the new program and dreaming up opportunities investors may find attractive.

All of these challenges are eminently fixable if states step up to the plate. In the meantime, places like South Boston are waiting for the opportunities that could and should be their due.


Socialists won’t be on many ballots this fall. Moderates are surging.

Democratic primary voters didn’t buy the ultra-left’s ‘free-for-all’ agenda. What’s happening is not so much a liberal surge, but a moderate one.

Via USA Today

Candidates affiliated with the Democratic Socialists and the progressive left have pushed hard this cycle for a campaign agenda heavy on government giveaways, such as free health care (“Medicare for All”), free college, guaranteed jobs and perhaps even free money (“universal basic income”).

Few of these candidates, however, will be on the ballot this fall. Rather, the insurgent left has been broadly rejected in one primary after another — and by Democrats theoretically predisposed to this pitch.

In Michigan, for instance, “establishment” candidate Gretchen Witmer beat Medicare-for-All advocate Abdul El-Sayed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by 22 points, while in Kansas, a former professional mixed martial artist defeated a congressional hopeful endorsed by Democratic Socialists Sen. Bernie Sanders and rising superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Longtime Delaware Sen. Tom Carper easily beat back a progressive challenger, while in New York, Gov. Mario Cuomo defied his own dismal approval ratings to crush opponent Cynthia Nixon by 30 points.

These progressive losses have moreover occurred despite higher than typical turnout, which is another sign of the ultra-left agenda’s lack of appeal: What’s happening is not so much a liberal surge, but a moderate one.

Continue reading at USA Today

Higher ed solutions for rural students

More states should consider creating rural higher education centers, and colleges should embrace such centers as a way to help more students succeed.

Via Inside Higher Ed.

After graduating from her rural Pennsylvania high school in 2005, Tesla Rae Moore did what most American high school seniors today expect to do: she left home for college with her sights on a four-year degree. But when she was a sophomore in nursing school at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, the unexpected intervened: she became pregnant with her son.

“It was a high-risk pregnancy, and I decided to stop the program,” she said. Moore returned to her hometown of Kane, a community of about 3,500 in northwestern Pennsylvania. At first intending just to take a break, she ended up dropping out. “I was going to go back, and then it was just one of those things,” she said. “Life happened.”

Moore didn’t lose her desire to return to college; she just couldn’t figure out how to make it work. As a single mom, she couldn’t quit her job. Moreover, getting to Pitt-Bradford, the nearest four-year institution, required a ninety-minute round-trip commute. The closest two-year college, in Butler County, was a two-hour drive each way. Online-only classes might have been a solution, but Moore felt she needed more structure to succeed. “Especially for somebody that’s been out of school, it takes a lot of discipline,” she said.

Continue reading at Inside Higher Ed.

When cities rely on fines and fees, everybody loses

They’re a tempting alternative to raising taxes, but their long-term costs far outweigh the revenue they bring in.

Originally published in Governing, September 2018.

Raising taxes is painful. That may be why, since 2010, 47 states and a number of cities have instead raised both civil and criminal fines and fees. These increases are often viewed as a conflict-free way to plug budget holes.

In the last decade, for example, New York City grew its revenues from fines by 35 percent, raking in $993 million in fiscal 2016 alone. The monies came largely from parking and red light camera violations, as well as stricter enforcement of “quality of life” offenses such as littering and noise. In California, routine traffic tickets now carry a multiplicity of revenue-boosting “surcharges.” As a result, the true price of a $100 traffic ticket is more like $490 — and up to $815 with late fees, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This increasing reliance on fines and fees comes despite what we learned following the shooting in 2014 of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. A federal investigation of the city’s police department subsequently revealed that as much as a quarter of the city’s budget was derived from fines and fees. Police officers, under pressure to “produce” revenue, extracted millions of dollars in penalties from lower-income and African-American residents. In 2017, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a follow-up report finding that the “targeting” of low-income and minority communities for fines and fees is far from unique to Ferguson.

This potential for injustice is one reason why states and cities should be weaning themselves from fines and fees. Another is that these revenue boosters carry economic costs that far outweigh the short-term revenue gains.

Because the burden of these penalties falls disproportionately on people who can’t afford to pay, jurisdictions collect far less than expected and waste resources chasing down payments that won’t materialize. In California, increased fines and fees have resulted not in a treasury flush with cash but in $12.3 billion in uncollected court debt as of 2016. A 2014 study of Alabama court costs also found abysmal collection rates — under 10 percent on average — despite countless hours spent by staff pursuing payment.

States can further see net losses if driver’s licenses are suspended or residents are incarcerated for nonpayment. The report by the Commission on Civil Rights found that in some jurisdictions as many as one-fourth of local inmates were in jail for nonpayment of fines and fees. The fiscal impacts of this policy are obvious. In addition to its direct expenses, incarceration — even short stints in jail — can lead to costly outcomes, including unemployment, dependence on public benefits and greater risk of crime.

Nearly as damaging — and far more common — are driver’s license suspensions. The Washington Post reported that more than 7 million people nationwide may have had their licenses suspended because of traffic debts. These suspensions have economic consequences. “People can’t drive and go to work, which means they can’t pay the fines and fees or support their families,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

A few jurisdictions are rethinking these revenue generators. In the lead is San Francisco, which established the Financial Justice Project dedicated to fines and fees reform. Promising efforts are also afoot in cities and states, including California, Illinois, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington state. Some jurisdictions are working to end license suspensions — a trend that could accelerate after a federal judge recently ruled the practice unconstitutional in Tennessee. Other places are considering non-monetary penalties, such as community service or instituting so-called day fines or payment plans based on the ability to pay. In San Francisco, for instance, a newly instituted payment plan for low-income residents has already quadrupled the parking fines being paid.

The bottom line: Despite the short-term boosts civil and criminal fines and fees appear to bring, the long-term cost to cities, states and their residents is likely to be far greater.


An innovative fix for rural higher education deserts

Geography is a barrier to higher education for tens of millions of rural Americans. A few states have hit on an innovative solution.

Via Washington Monthly

After graduating from her rural Pennsylvania high school in 2005, Tesla Rae Moore did what many, perhaps most American high school seniors today expect to do: she left home for college with her sights set on a four-year degree. But when she was a sophomore in nursing school at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, the unexpected intervened: she became pregnant with her son.

“It was a high-risk pregnancy, and I decided to stop the program,” she said. Moore returned to her hometown of Kane, a community of about 3,500 nestled at the edge of the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. At first just intending to take a break, she ended up dropping out. “I was going to go back, and then it was just one of those things,” she said. “Life happened.”

Moore didn’t lose her desire to return to school; she just couldn’t figure out how to make it work as the years went by and her family grew. “I’m a single mom, and the only income earner, so I couldn’t quit my job to go to school,” she said. “And if I took classes all day, I’d have to work at night, and who would take care of the kids?” Given her work and family obligations, Moore couldn’t fit in college unless she could attend classes nearby. But getting to Pitt-Bradford, the nearest four-year school, required a round-trip commute of an hour and a half. The nearest community college, in Butler County, was a two-hour drive each way. Moore didn’t have that kind of time to spare. Online-only classes might have been a solution, but Moore felt she needed more structure to succeed. “Especially for somebody that’s been out of school, it takes a lot of discipline,” she said.

A surprising number of Americans face the same problem Moore did. According to the Urban Institute, nearly one in five American adults—as many as forty-one million people—lives twenty-five miles or more from the nearest college or university, or in areas where a single community college is the only source of broad-access public higher education within that distance. Three million of the Americans in these so-called “higher education deserts” lack broadband internet, as well.

Continue reading at Washington Monthly.

Cavity Country

Rural America has too few dentists – and too few patients who can pay.

Via the Washington Post.

Lynnel Beauchesne’s dental office hugs a rural crossroads near Tunnelton, W.Va., population 336. Acres of empty farmland surround the weathered one-story white building; a couple of houses and a few barns are the only neighbors. But the parking lot is full. Some people have driven hours to see Beauchesne, the sole dentist within 30 miles. She estimates that she has as many as 8,000 patients. Before the office closes at 7 p.m., she and her two hygienists will see up to 50 of them, not counting emergencies.

About 43 percent of rural Americans lack access to dental care, according to the National Rural Health Association, and West Virginia, among the poorest and most rural states, is at the center of the crisis.

Read more at the Washington Post.

Five ideas for a pro-worker and pro-employer agenda

In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election and inauguration, former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders urged Democrats to remake themselves as warriors in opposition to big business as the strategy for winning back voters.

“We need to … make it crystal clear that the Democratic Party is going to take on Wall Street, it’s going to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s going to take on corporate America that is shutting down plants in this country and moving our jobs abroad,” Sanders said on CNN in February 2017.

Many progressives have taken that advice to heart. As in many past election cycles, corporate- bashing rhetoric has been the bread-and-butter of many progressive candidates and their supporters pressing for greater governmental intervention on issues such as corporate governance, wages, and worker benefits.

The grassroots group “Justice Democrats,” for instance, is so far endorsing 52 candidates they say “represent people, not corporations,” while “putting Main Street before Wall Street” has become a reliable campaign trope. Other activist organizations are rallying their constituencies against “powerful CEOs” who have been “rigging the economy against working families for decades.”

These instincts are understandable, given the many ways the nation’s current prosperity seems to be bypassing average Americans. Corporate earnings have hit their highest mark since 2011, yet wage growth has been sluggish. Newly mandated disclosures reveal eye-popping disparities between CEO and worker salaries – one study finds the median CEO now makes 140 times as much as the median employee. Many Americans – particularly “gig” workers – seem cast adrift on the economy, with less access to traditional employer-sponsored benefits such as health care and retirement.

But, as a comprehensive economic message and agenda, “fighting big business” unfortunately won’t lead to the kinds of policies workers need.

Continue reading at the Progressive Policy Institute

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The Trump economy is supposedly roaring; why aren’t Americans feeling it?

Via Washington Monthly

America’s official unemployment rate now stands at 3.9 percent, which has been cause for much crowing by President Donald Trump. New data, however, belie Trump’s triumphalism on the economy and find that many ordinary Americans are far from confident about their personal economic circumstances.

A new survey by Prudential and Morning Consult finds that just 46 percent of Americans are “hopeful” about their financial security, while 48 percent are “worried” or “very worried.” One in four say they’re saving less for retirement because of their current finances, 27 percent say they’ve taken a second job, and 34 percent say they’ve looked for a new job in an effort to increase their pay.

Fears about retirement security in fact loomed large in this survey, with 72 percent of workers saying they were concerned about their retirement and 80 percent ranking it as the top issue they’d like to see Congress tackle. According to the poll, the principal reasons workers gave for having trouble saving were “daily expenses” (29 percent), housing costs (18 percent), elder care (17 percent) and health care (13 percent).

Why so much anxiety despite nothing but positive toplines on the economy?

One reason is wage stagnation. While corporate profits might be reaching record highs, wage growth has been sluggish. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real average weekly earnings in April were just 0.4 percent  higher than they were a year ago. Meanwhile, household expenses have been rising at a much faster pace. Average annual premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance, for instance, have risen 19 percent since 2012 and 55 percent since 55 percent since 2007, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A second reason for Americans’ persistent economic anxieties is escalating levels of debt. This week, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released new data showing an increase in household debt for the 15thconsecutive quarter. As of March 31, U.S. households owed $13.2 trillion, up $63 billion from the fourth quarter of 2017. Student loans were the largest source of debt behind mortgages, outstripping auto loans and credit cards to total $1.41 trillion in the first quarter of 2018.

A third source of household anxiety is growing job insecurity, as mounting numbers of workers enter the “contingent” or “gig” economy. While the precise size of this new economy is under dispute, the Prudential-Morning Consultsurvey found that 27 percent of workers – including 35 percent of millennials – characterized themselves as gig workers and that 30 percent of respondents said someone in their immediate family worked a gig job. Despite their claimed benefits of flexibility and independence, gig work is also seen as insecure – 64 percent of Americans said gig jobs “fail to provide necessary worker benefits.”

Americans’ worries about their finances should also add to the worries of the GOP, which is already highly vulnerable this fall. The President’s much-touted tax cuts have done little to help average families, who might be starting to see the extent to which they’ve been hoodwinked by Trump and GOP promises. Surveys show, for instance, that voters are beginning to pin higher health care costs on Republican recalcitrance over Obamacare – one late 2017 survey found that 50 percent of Americans would blame Trump and Republicans if costs increase and people lose coverage, versus 37 percent who would blame Democrats and former President Barack Obama.

Progressives, on the other hand, now have a chance to point out the failures of Trump’s economic plan and offer their own prescriptions for change. At the top of that list should be strategies to help Americans earn their way to greater financial security through better jobs, higher wages and greater opportunities for advancement. One promising blueprint is the economic opportunity agenda released this week by the House New Democrat Coalition, which offers a smorgasbord of creative ideas for improving workers’ skills and ensuring they are well-equipped to thrive in a changing economy. Among other things, the Coalition calls for an overhaul of higher education so that students not only emerge from school with immediately marketable skills but have a chance to upgrade themselves throughout their working lives.

By embracing a forward-thinking agenda that gives Americans a clear path forward and upward, progressives can shift the political winds in their favor and help to defeat the underlying forces that propelled the rise of Trumpism and its destructive policies.

Originally published at PPI.

Guaranteed Jobs: Too Big to Succeed

As the party out of power, Democrats have the luxury of thinking big as they consider how to topple President Donald Trump in 2020. Bold, ambitious ideas are what the party sorely needs if it is to capture voters’ attention and woo them from Trump’s corrosive grip.

But if Democrats are to craft a winning agenda for 2020, bigness and boldness alone are insufficient; political feasibility and substantive plausibility are also necessary ingredients. That’s why the latest big and bold idea catching the eye of potential 2020 contenders – a federal jobs guarantee – is ultimately a disappointment.

Touted by advocates as a way to achieve “permanent full employment,” the notion of a federally guaranteed job for anyone who wants one has won support from three rumored presidential hopefuls so far, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Last week, Booker revealed draft legislation3 to pilot a federal jobs guarantee program in up to 15 localities nationwide, while Sanders has floated a much more ambitious national plan4 focused on public works projects at a scale not seen since the Great Depression. Under both proposals, participants would earn wages of up to $15 an hour, along with benefits such as paid family and sick leave and health insurance. “There is great dignity in work – and in America, if you want to provide for your family, you should be able to find a full-time job that pays a fair wage,” said Booker in a press release announcing his effort.

Booker’s endorsement speaks to the inherent surface appeal of a jobs guarantee. To borrow President Bill Clinton’s famous formulation, Americans who “work hard and play by the rules” deserve a shot at self-sufficiency, and the promise of work for all who want it invokes Americans’ innate sense of fair play. Proponents also rightly point out stark disparities in employment between certain groups, the result of discrimination and other structural barriers that guaranteed access to meaningful employment could arguably remedy.

Unfortunately, the idea also suffers from a variety of fatal defects, including its size, timing and relevance and any number of practical obstacles that make it administratively unworkable as well as politically untenable. For one thing, it rests on the dubious assumption that the American electorate – at a time when public cynicism and distrust toward government remain at all-time highs6 – is ready to embrace a dramatically expanded role for the federal government as the nation’s largest staffing agency and employer. More fundamentally,
the idea betrays a deep lack of faith in the inherent resilience of the American economy and its people to weather disruption and change. Most Americans don’t share the left’s inordinate confidence in government’s ability to engineer shared prosperity from the top down. Aggressive advocacy of a panacea like government guaranteed jobs can only reinforce public impressions that progressives will always default to “big government” as the solution to complex economic problems.

Continue reading at Progressive Policy Institute.

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