The road to a stable job – without crippling debt

A novel grant program in Virginia is helping workers earn career-boosting occupational credentials.

Via Washington Monthly

It’s 6:45 a.m. during the height of summer construction season, and the asphalt plant at Cedar Mountain Stone Corporation in Mitchells, Virginia, has been buzzing with activity since before dawn. Thousands of pounds of crushed rock are moving along conveyor belts to be mixed with hot liquid asphalt in a gigantic drum, while trucks line up under a massive chute to take the finished asphalt away.

The company’s nearby quarry has been running 24/7, mining 8,000 tons a day of the high-quality granite for which this part of central Virginia is known. Some of this rock will end up cut and polished for people’s kitchen countertops, or lining streams and roadbeds, but much of it will end up in Cedar Mountain Stone’s asphalt plant, processed into blacktop for the thousands of miles of roads and highways that crisscross the state.

Making that asphalt is the job of Allen Miller, one of 11 apprentices at Cedar Mountain Stone. Like any good brew, good asphalt is hard to make. “We have to have certain gradations of stone, the right amount of dust, and not too much asphalt binder in it,” said Ed Dalrymple, Miller’s boss and the fourth-generation owner of Cedar Mountain Stone. “If we have all of that in the right proportions, the road’s going to last.”

Under the tutelage of a mentor at the company, Miller spends his days learning how to operate, fix and maintain the asphalt plant that is the lifeblood of the company; how to formulate asphalt so that it can withstand 20 years of freezes, thaws and the weight of thousands of tractor-trailers every day, and how to test it so that the quality of the state’s roadways passes the standards of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

Under VDOT’s pay-for-performance requirements, well-built roads earn a bonus, while inferior blacktop will cost the company penalties. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are potentially at stake, which means Dalrymple is counting on Miller to do his job right. On any given day, Miller is out drilling core samples from freshly laid road beds, watching the computerized control panels monitoring the moisture levels of asphalt being mixed at the plant, or taking 20-pound samples of asphalt to the company’s on-site laboratory for analysis.

iller is 31 years old and has been at Cedar Mountain Stone for about 16 months, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later every day. In the evenings, he goes to classes at Germanna Community College in nearby Fredericksburg for specialized classes in “asphalt technology” that are part of his apprenticeship. “It makes for some very long days,” he said.

But if he sticks it out, Miller will finish his apprenticeship with a journeyman’s license in industrial maintenance; multiple certifications in “asphalt technology” from the Virginia Asphalt Association, which will help him land jobs anywhere in the industry—and four years of work experience. Though he makes just $35,000 a year as an apprentice, his salary could jump to near six figures once he finishes his training.

Best of all, Miller will have no school debt. Cedar Mountain Stone is paying for the cost of Miller’s coursework at Germanna with the help of the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant, which Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe launched in 2016 with bipartisan legislative support.  It’s the first program in the country to help pay for non-college-credit occupational credentials, says Sara Dunnigan, executive director of Virginia’s Board of Workforce Development. While other states are focused on “free college” or “free community college,” Virginia is the first to focus on free (or near-free) credentials.

Already, the state is seeing benefits. Workers like Miller are getting affordable access to industry-recognized occupational credentials that can boost their careers, while local industries are getting the trained workers they need. In the first year of the program, the program helped 2,173 Virginians earn workplace credentials.

Under the new program, which will cost $20 million over two years, the state picks up two-thirds of the cost of acquiring non-degree workplace credentials, such as the asphalt technology certifications Miller will receive, as well as commercial drivers’ licenses, IT certifications and other industry-recognized certificates, certifications and licenses from a list approved by the state. Students pay one-third of costs to ensure they have “skin in the game,” and training programs only get their grant monies if students complete their coursework and pass the licensing or other exams necessary to receive their credential.

While Miller’s apprenticeship is a multi-year commitment, many credentialing programs typically require only a few months of training and a few thousand dollars. But they can still translate into a huge boost in wages. An entry-level IT worker with CompTIA “A+” certification, for example, can expect to earn $18 to $25 an hour. Certified welders can earn as much as $62,100 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the highest-paid electricians can make as much as $90,420. Many of the credentials on the state’s approved list involve so-called “middle skill” jobs, which require specialized training but no college degree. According to the National Skills Coalition, as many as 53 percent of all U.S. jobs fit into this category in 2015.

Continued at the Washington Monthly


Why Democrats should dump “free college”

When congressional Democrats recently rolled out a new economic policy agenda aimed at staking out a new, populist-leaning course for the Democratic Party—dubbed “A Better Deal”—one idea was conspicuously missing: free college.

As the signature idea of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose populist presidential campaign nearly upended the Democratic primary in 2016, “free college” would seem a natural fit for Democrats’ first post-election platform—both as a hat tip to the millions of younger progressives energized by Sanders’s candidacy, and as a rallying point in the fight against inequality. Instead, “A Better Deal” called for what some liberals consider thin gruel: more apprenticeships and employer incentives to invest in workers’ skills.

The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, for example, argues the focus on skills “does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness that plagues the economy.” Others, such as Robert Borosage, are more blunt, attacking the emphasis on skills as a “charade” that is “clearly a nod to the still potent New Democrat forces in the party.”

But the Senate Democrats’ strategy is the right move. If Democrats want to win the broadest possible support both in 2018 and beyond, “free college” is not the way to do it. In fact, a Democratic insistence on free college would guarantee the party continues to talk past a significant group of voters who don’t believe that college is the best or only path to the middle class.

“Free college” might have its share of passionate adherents, but it hasn’t been broadly popular with voters. A 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found that less than half of Americans—or just 47 percent—supported the idea of tuition-free college. It’s especially unpopular among the white working class voters who flocked to Donald Trump and whom Democrats are now working hard to court.

One reason for this lack of enthusiasm might be the price tag. Even the skimpiest of benefits would be enormously expensive in the aggregate. Sanders, who recently reintroduced his “College for All” legislation, estimates the cost of his plan, to be paid for by a new “transactions tax” on stock trades, would be $47 billion a year (and that’s assuming states pick up one-third of the tab).


But there are other, deeper reasons why “free college” has failed to catch fire, particularly among the white working class. A sizeable share of voters don’t believe they would benefit from free college—or that the benefits would even flow their way. Many Americans also rightly believe that you don’t need a college degree to get a decent job, even in today’s globalized economy.

Continued at the Washington Monthly

Why more students should go to college in high school

Dual enrollment’ programs—where students attend both high school and college—are gaining in popularity as college costs soar.

Via Washington Monthly

At just 24 years old, Haleigh Funk Butler already has seven years of professional experience in nursing. At 17, she started training at Culpeper Community Hospital in Culpeper, Virginia, and then worked at a family practice in nearby Warrenton. At 19, she became a registered nurse. For the past four and a half years, she’s worked in the medical-surgical unit at the Novant Health–UVA Health System Culpeper Medical Center.

“Patients look at me and think I’m 16 years old,” Funk Butler said. “They say, ‘Hold up! How long have you been doing this?’ I tell them I’ve been a nurse for 7 years.”

What gave Funk Butler the head start in her career was a “dual enrollment” program at Eastern View High School in Culpeper, which prepared her to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) at the same time she was earning her diploma. Funk Butler took her LPN exam the month before her high school graduation in 2011 and then immediately landed the job in Warrenton, where she worked full-time while pursuing her RN license at Germanna Community College in Locust Grove. She continued to work and study and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing last year from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

“If I had gone the traditional route, I would only have been a nurse for two years or maybe three years by now,” Funk Butler said. “I feel like I’m in a much more mature state than other people I know who are still struggling to find that job as a career.”

Best of all, Funk Butler is debt free. “I was lucky that my parents had a little bit of a college fund for me, but I didn’t even really break into that at all,” said Funk Butler. “I have no school debt—nothing.”

Dual enrollment programs—aimed at giving high school students a leg up on college—have been around since the 1950s. But with growing worries both about soaring college costs and whether the price of college is worth the returns in job and earnings opportunities, dual enrollment has surged in popularity as a way for students to save both time and money towards a college degree, earn a credential with immediate value in the job market—or both.

Continue reading at Washington Monthly

The Manufacturing Jobs Program Trump Wants to Kill

The little-known Manufacturing Extension Partnership program has helped grow small businesses like Michele’s Granola.

Via Washington Monthly

Walk into Michele’s Granola factory in Timonium, Maryland, and you smell the homey aromas of toasting oats, brown sugar and vanilla. The facility produces 2,500 pounds of granola a day in eight different flavors—from classic vanilla almond to more exotic varieties like pumpkin spice, lemon pistachio and ginger hemp. This granola is not the heavy, sticky mass-produced stuff you bought at the supermarket and find months later, congealed in a tub in the back of your pantry. It’s airy, light and practically crackles in your teeth.

“The granola has a very unique texture,” said company founder Michele Tsucalas. “We use just five to seven simple ingredients—nothing you wouldn’t find in your home kitchen.”

Tsucalas began baking her own granola more than a decade ago, experimenting at home as a weekend distraction from her day job as a nonprofit fundraiser. Once her recipe was perfected, she started selling her granola at farmers’ markets in northern Virginia and then at a food co-op in Maryland. Sales started catching fire, and today you can find Michele’s Granola in a dozen states, including at Whole Foods stores throughout the mid-Atlantic United States, and in Wegmans stores in the northeast. Since her first farmers’ market in 2006, Tsucalas’s business has grown from a one-woman concern operating out of leased space in a commercial kitchen to a sleek boutique business with 35 full-time workers.

But the secret to her success is more than a great product. Also instrumental was a little-known but decades-old government program—the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program—aimed at helping small and medium-sized manufacturers like Michele’s Granola grow. It’s also on the chopping block in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, one of dozens of programs the administration wants to kill.

While Trump has lately touted his efforts at job creation, including with a recent visit to Wisconsin to promote U.S. manufacturing, his plan to zero out the MEP program would eliminate one of the federal government’s best programs for achieving exactly that goal. It’s yet another example of how Trump’s actual economic policies fail to match—and even contradict—the president’s promises and rhetoric.


Continue reading at Washington Monthly

Deconstricting the Administrative State

Donald Trump promises that his deregulatory agenda will lead to a boom in jobs. The real effect will be the opposite.

Via Washington Monthly

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt was a bitter opponent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he sued repeatedly while in office. Now, as President Donald Trump’s pick to run this very agency, Pruitt has leaped at his chance to sabotage it from within.

Days after his confirmation as EPA administrator, Pruitt told the Wall Street Journal that the agency might lack authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions—something the EPA has been doing for most of the last decade. Soon thereafter, he halted pending rules requiring oil and gas producers to disclose their methane emissions, ordered a “review” of the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, and declared an end to the “regulatory assault” on industry.

Pruitt’s efforts to hobble the EPA are in line with Trump’s broader vendetta against “job-killing regulation,” a signature initiative of both Trump’s campaign and presidency. “Excessive regulation is killing jobs, driving companies out of our country like never before,” said Trump in February.

But that’s not how the entrepreneurs at NBD Nano-technologies see it.

The Boston-area start-up (“NBD Nano,” as it calls itself) arguably got its first big break as a result of exactly the rules Pruitt is working so hard to undo. After the EPA announced, in 2009, its intention to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, including the emissions of coal-fired power plants, power companies started scrambling for ways to burn less coal.

One strategy companies began exploring is how to make the steam turbines that generate electricity more efficient. Much of what a power plant does is heat water into steam, and a major source of inefficiency is the time it takes to condense steam back into water before it’s reheated.

Enter NBD Nano.

In 2013, the company won a small grant from the National Science Foundation to see if its products—oil- and waterproof industrial coatings—could help power plants convert steam into water more quickly. The company found that using its materials to coat the thousands of copper tubes that line a power plant’s “condenser box,” where steam is captured and cooled, dramatically speeds up condensation by encouraging water droplets to form more quickly and at higher temperatures. That means power plants can use less fuel to reheat the water into steam.

After the company won a second grant in 2015 to help commercialize its technology, it began piloting its coatings at a power plant run by the Tennessee Valley Authority. So far, results have been good. “We’re now in the process of rolling it out globally to power plants around the world,” said Timothy Evans, NBD Nano’s vice president of sales.

Regulation, says company cofounder and president Deckard Sorensen, is the catalyst that prompted bigger companies to seek him out. “Large companies don’t necessarily have the capability to develop innovations in-house,” said Sorensen, who launched NBD Nano while still an undergraduate at Boston College. “So they look for entrepreneurs [to help them] align with regulations. It facilitates these larger companies being willing to work with small companies at an earlier stage.”

Now with twelve employees, NBD Nano’s early win has allowed it to set its sights on broader horizons. One of its products, a glass coating called RepelShell, could soon be standard on your car’s windshield and windows. Sorensen says the company is also working to produce smudge-proof touchscreens for smartphones and tablets (this writer will be first in line), and mud-proof soccer shoes are already in the works.

NBD Nano’s story is not a fluke. Federal regulation—especially when crafted with sensitivity to market needs—is the visible hand behind many new products, technologies, and industries benefiting both consumers and the U.S. economy.

Thinking about swapping your clunker for a Tesla? Electric cars would not be as readily availableas they are today without the tougher federal fuel economy standards that helped spur their development. Tesla is now America’s second most valuable car company, after GM, with a market value of $48 billion—testament to the potential investors see in this sector.

The same goes for the solar panels you might be contemplating for your roof. In 2007, as part of broader energy legislation, Congress passed a federal “renewable fuels standard” requiring renewables to replace a certain amount of traditional fossil fuel. The regulation has been a boon for solar and wind, as well as for nascent technologies such as bio-fuels, which could someday supplant coal, gas, and oil with fuels made from algae and garbage. In the solar energy sector, for example, the Solar Foundation estimates that 260,000 Americans held solar-related jobs in 2016, an increase of 25 percent over 2015.

Even the pieces of legislation most despised by the current GOP-controlled Congress—such as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—have sparked a wave of innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, you may have noticed a surge of new offerings in your smartphone’s app store for money management tools, like Betterment, an automated investment app that charges lower fees than traditional mutual funds, or Digit, a savings app that automatically transfers small amounts of money into your savings account, depending on your spending patterns. One reason apps like these are increasingly available is because the big banks no longer have a monopoly on your bank account information—a provision in Dodd-Frank gives you the right to control that data, including the right to grant third-party companies like Betterment and Digit permission to access it. It’s the reason why the fast-growing financial technology (“fin-tech”) sector is now fighting to save Dodd-Frank.

The ACA, meanwhile, has helped launched such new firms as Zenefits, a San Francisco–based health insurance broker for small employers that grew to 900 employees in the two years following the passage of the law. The surge of new consumers created by the ACA, along with the law’s new mandates, helped create at least ninety new health-related companies, according to a 2015 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), including firms that deliver telehealth services to patients and help doctors provide better care to people with chronic diseases, in addition to companies like Zenefits. According to the PwC report, venture funding for digital health start-ups also hit an all-time high in 2014, north of $4 billion.

All of these stories run counter to the dominant political narrative of regulation as a deadweight on the economy. This belief is gospel on the corporate-controlled free market right, and even liberals defending regulation seldom do so in terms of its broader positive economic impacts. With the sole exception of clean energy, where liberals have readily touted the link between regulation and jobs, you will look in vain for a progressive politician who more generally defends regulation as an instrument of innovation and economic growth. Rather, the prevailing frame is that of regulators as guardians of public safety and health. The same is true of the liberal advocacy community. “Public health, safety, pocketbook and environmental protections are being wiped out as payback to the GOP’s corporate donors,” warns the website of Rules at Risk, an umbrella campaign by progressive groups. This is true enough. But nowhere on the website does the group make a full-throated argument for how regulations benefit the economy as a whole. By ceding the economic argument, liberals have effectively allowed the debate on regulation to be framed as one of jobs versus safety, growth versus health. Voters are left believing that they have to choose between the two—a false choice that also gives the advantage to the GOP as the better champion of jobs and economic growth.

With Republicans now in control of both Congress and the executive branch (not to mention a renewed conservative majority on the Supreme Court), a reactionary assault on regulation that’s been contemplated for years could come to pass as early as this year. In fact, this hammer blow—part of what White House strategist Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state”—is more likely to happen than the other high-profile priorities, such as tax reform or ACA repeal, that garner far more media attention.

While Trump has brandished a series of anti-regulation executive orders—such as a requirement that agencies get rid of two old regulations for every new rule issued—the real action is in Congress, which has moved aggressively to enact an agenda that could paralyze federal agencies and bring all regulatory work to a halt. And with Democrats defending twenty-five Senate seats next year, including ten in states won by Trump, the temptation for vulnerable senators to support these measures will be fierce. In North Dakota, for example, embattled Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp is among the three current cosponsors of the Regulatory Accountability Act, one of the principal proposals being advocated by congressional anti-regulationists.

Anti-regulation conservatives sell their agenda with the promise that it will help business and spur growth. What they—and many liberals—fail to acknowledge is that regulation, far from being a drag on economic growth and competitiveness, often provides the infrastructure necessary for growth and innovation to occur. It eliminates the uncertainty that can stifle investment, sets minimum standards for the smooth running of markets, and husbands the birth of new industries by setting goals that demand innovation to achieve. Gumming up the regulatory works and slowing or even stopping the rule-making process, on the other hand, raises risk and stifles innovation by erasing the market signals that industries need. Trump and his allies promise that their deregulatory agenda will lead to a boom in job creation. The real effect will likely be the opposite.

Continue reading at Washington Monthly

Why Trumpism Is Here to Stay

Did Trump win because of racism or economic anxiety? Ultimately, it might be a false dichotomy.

Via Washington Monthly

After President Donald Trump’s rocky first month in office, there’s been growing speculation — or wishful thinking — about whether Trump’s hold on the presidency will last. “I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term,” New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote.

But so long as a Republican-controlled Congress still thinks it can work with Trump on its pet priorities, such as tax reform, Obamacare repeal and judicial appointments, impeachment is likely remote. And the 25th Amendment, on which some have pinned their hopes as an alternative route to Trump’s removal, would require the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet to invoke – another improbable development.

But even if Trump’s presidency implodes in less than its allotted four years, the end of Trump won’t necessarily mean the end of Trumpism — i.e., the forces that led to his election in the first place. Under the constant distraction of the daily outrages perpetrated by this Administration, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger problem: the widespread economic dissatisfaction that fueled the resentment-driven politics of 2016. Without a solution to this underlying dysfunction, Trump’s successors – while perhaps less destructive – may be no less Trumpian in their outlook on the world and America’s place in it. It’s not enough to rid the nation of Trump if Trumpism endures.

Even before Trump’s ascendance, there were signs that America was becoming a meaner, less generous place. Small-dollar and mid-range donations to charities have dropped by greater than 25 percent over the last decade, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. Volunteerism has been declining too. In 2015, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24.9% of Americans reported volunteering, down from 27.6% in 2002 (the earliest year for which data are available) and a peak of 28.8% in 2003-2005. Meanwhile, hate groups have re-emerged from the shadows, with the number of active groups — including black separatist groups — roughly doubling since 1999.

What could cure Trumpism, says Harvard University economist Benjamin Friedman, is to break the economic stagnation that’s gripped the middle class for decades. Except for a brief burst in the 1990s, during the tenure of President Bill Clinton, the economic lot of the American middle class has been flat for 40 years. From 1973 to 1993, according to the Census Bureau, real median incomes rose a mere $337, from $50,141 to $50,478. In 2015, real median income was only $6 higher than it was in 1998.

Moreover, median incomes have stayed stagnant in the face of overall economic growth, the spoils of which have accrued to an increasingly wealthy elite. As labor economist Stephen Rose has documented, the so-called “upper middle class” — educated professionals but not the Trump-like super-rich — grew from 12.9% of the population in 1979 to 29.4% in 2014 and, together with the rich, controlled 63% of the nation’s total income.

In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, a volume published a full decade before last year’s election but is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the current moment, Friedman argues that the impulses we’ve come to associate with Trumpism – xenophobia, racism and nationalism – tend to reach their zenith when the broad middle class is failing to see economic progress.  At least in post-Civil War America, says Friedman, social progress, or lack thereof, has been largely lockstep with the financial state of the middle class.

“[T]he attitude of people toward themselves, toward their fellow citizens and toward their society as a whole is different when their living standard is rising than when it is stagnant or falling,” Friedman writes. “It is likewise different when they view their prospects and their children’s with confidence as opposed to looking ahead with anxiety or even fear.”


Using a wealth of historical precedent both here in the United States and in western Europe, Friedman argues that times of stagnation for the broad middle class, especially if coupled with rising inequality, have tended to coincide with social regression. The reason, Friedman argues, is that only when people are feeling secure in their own circumstances do they feel they can “afford” to be generous to others. In fact, writes Friedman, “in a stagnant economy, where one person’s gain is necessarily someone else’s loss, people who get ahead are perceived not only as doing so at other people’s expense but as directly disadvantaging others.”

The populist era of the 1890s, for example, was strongly anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, and it was precipitated by years of economic turmoil following the collapse of farm prices, bankruptcies and an 18 percent unemployment rate. “[T]he populists represented a turning backward,” writes Friedman in a passage that could just as easily describe today, “a closing of American society, a defensive rigidification, and in many ways a retreat from tolerance, in the face of continual economic disappointment.”

Broadly shared economic expansion, on the other hand, puts more Americans in a generous mood, and in fact, many of America’s greatest social advances have come during times of middle-class prosperity. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty, for example, coincided with the height of post-war growth for the middle class. Likewise, the first Progressive Era, that of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, was also one of widely shared growth.

“It is not hard to see that a strong economy, where opportunities are plentiful and jobs go begging, helps break down social barriers,” writes Friedman. “Bigoted employers may still dislike hiring members of one group or another, but when nobody else is available, discrimination most often gives way to the sheer need to get the work done. … In the American construction boom of the late 1990s, for example, even the carpenters’ union – long known as a ‘traditional bastion of white men, a world where a coveted union card was handed down from father to son’ – began openly recruiting women, black and Hispanics for its apprenticeship program.” Middle-class growth, in other words, keeps nascent racism at bay.

But if the ideal environment for social progress is a thriving middle class, virtually none of Trump’s policies are going to have that effect.

Friedman’s thesis offers a possible solution to one of the enduring mysteries of the 2016 election: how so many seemingly rational (and even well-to-do) white middle-class Americans could have fallen into the trap of Trumpism.

Exit polls show that the median income of the typical Trump voter was higher than the median income of someone who voted for Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, these Americans don’t feel as if they’re moving ahead themselves or that their children will succeed. Thus they have less incentive to secure the success of others and instead adopt a zero-sum view of the world: your loss is my gain. Under this “politics of scarcity,” it’s easy to see where this line of thinking leads: Why subsidize someone else’s health insurance when my own premiums are going through the roof? Why let more people into the country when there aren’t enough jobs to go around? Why provide “handouts” to the “undeserving”?

But if the ideal environment for social progress is a thriving middle class, virtually none of Trump’s policies are going to have that effect. His tax cut proposals will enrich the wealthy at the expense of the middle class; his proposed tariffs could spark a trade war that raises the costs for consumers on everything from shoes to cars; the repeal of the Affordable Care Act will force 20 million Americans to lose their health insurance; and so on.

Nineteenth-century populism met its end almost by serendipity when prospectors struck gold in Alaska in 1898 and a Scottish chemist named John Stewart MacArthur invented a process that dramatically raised the productivity of gold mines in South Africa. Because the whole world was on the gold standard at the time, the sudden expansion of the gold supply meant freer money and credit. The American economy was soon booming, and the populists vanished with little fanfare.

It’s possible that a similar sort of breakthrough could rescue us from the current era of stagnation. But the surer bet is to begin developing the ideas and strategies that could renew broad-based middle-class prosperity.

Yes, by all means, let’s get rid of Trump. But stagnation is the true enemy.

Continue reading at Washington Monthly

Closing the Preschool Gap at Home

By the time kindergarten starts, wealthy kids already have a major head start over their low-income peers. A novel program hopes to change that.

Via Washington Monthly

We are sitting in the cheerful, cluttered kitchen of Adriana Fuentes, a self-described Army wife and mom who lives in Woodlawn Village, a military housing complex near Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Fuentes is holding two paper finger puppets mounted on popsicle sticks, one with a sad face and one with a smiling one. She’s pretending to be her four-year-old son, Santana, as part of a role-playing exercise aimed at helping her teach her son about emotions.

“How did you feel when you scraped your knee?” asks Brenda Richards, a home visitor for Fairfax County Public Schools who’s playing “mom.” Fuentes holds up the frowning puppet, matching her own expression to the puppet’s. Richards asks another question, and this time Fuentes holds up the smiling one. The thirty-something Fuentes is wearing a Batman logo T-shirt and a practical ponytail – standard weekday wear for a busy mom. She’s outgoing, enthusiastic and plays her part with gusto. “What would be a patient face?” Fuentes asks Richards. “We talk about that a lot when he doesn’t get his way.”

For months, Richards has been a weekly visitor to Fuentes’s home, which Fuentes shares with her husband and children – four-year-old Santana, two-year-old Gabriela, and two teenagers. Richards typically comes during Gabriela’s naptime, but Gabby is awake today. She plays in the adjoining family room while Paw Patrol plays on the flatscreen TV. A big pile of moldable pink kinetic sand sits in a cookie sheet on the kitchen table, along with spoons and a small plastic shovel. Big wooden letters spelling “E-A-T” adorn the kitchen wall.

Richards works for the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program, a national home visiting initiative for low-income families that’s been offered in Fairfax County for more than a decade. A mom herself, Richards will visit half a dozen other homes this week, walking her clients through a tightly-scripted curriculum provided by the program, offering moral support and parenting advice. “What I love about my job is being a wife and mother and being able to support other mothers,” she said.

Richards pulls out a big plastic box she takes on all of her visits. The box is like Mary Poppins’ magical carpet bag, except it’s filled with props for this week’s activities, rather than a birdcage and a hat stand. On the agenda this week: making homemade “Play-doh” out of flour and salt, learning about gravity and recognizing shapes. Fuentes pretends to measure out salt and flour while Richards continues to play “mom.” “How does the salt feel?” Richards asks. “Rough,” Fuentes responds. “And how does the flour feel?” “Soft,” Fuentes replies.

Richards opens a container of pre-made clay to demonstrate math activities using the dough. They practice cutting the dough into two pieces, then four. “I wouldn’t have thought to do any of this,” said Fuentes, holding a plastic knife. “I wouldn’t know how to teach him.”

Like many of the roughly 285 families in Fairfax County served by HIPPY, the Fuenteses had initially applied for Head Start, whose waitlist in Fairfax County is 6 to 12 months long. Of the roughly 10,000 kindergarteners who started school in Fairfax County public schools this year, just 4,000 had preschool experience through state or federally supported programs, said Renee LaHuffman-Jackson, coordinator of the Office of Professional Learning and Family Engagement for Fairfax County Public Schools.

It’s an enormous gap that the county is hoping HIPPY can help fill, by teaching parents to ready their children for school, especially if traditional preschool options aren’t available. And it’s a concern that’s become increasingly urgent as the academic demands on students’ increase. “Kindergarten is what first grade used to be,” said Elisabeth Bruzon, HIPPY program leader for Fairfax County.

More broadly, programs like HIPPY could play an important role in shrinking academic achievement gaps between wealthier kids and poorer ones. While substandard schools, inadequate funding and indifferent politicians are all to blame for this inequality, growing evidence suggests the disparities also begin at home, with big differences in the kinds of resources and experiences kids get from their parents, depending on family income. Programs like HIPPY seek to level the home field — by teaching parents to be their kids’ first teachers — and evidence shows these efforts work. In the face of growing worries about inequality’s impacts, these programs could help create the opportunities low-income kids need.

Continued reading at Washington Monthly

How cash bail keeps the poor in jail

Inability to pay bail is often the only reason a pretrial defendant stays behind bars.

Via the Atlantic and Washington Monthly

The row house on Cecil Avenue was just like any other in the rough-and-tumble East Baltimore neighborhood where Rafiq Shaw lives. But one chilly day in December 2015, he had the bad luck to be walking by right as the police were getting ready for a raid.

“All out of the blue a bunch of police cars pulled up and grabbed me,” Shaw told me in September. “They threw me to the wall and put cuffs on me.” The officers insisted he had come out of the house, which Shaw just as vehemently denied. “They thought I was someone else,” he said. “That’s what they thought the whole time. They called a name out that wasn’t me.”

Shaw is a tall, heavyset, 31-year-old black man with a booming voice and an easy smile. He told his story almost cheerfully, emphasizing the absurdity of the harrowing situation he was describing.

Over his protests, Shaw continued, the police dragged him into the house, where a woman inside told the officers she had no idea who he was. The officers pushed him onto a couch and went through his pockets, finding the keys to his mother’s car, parked nearby.

Later, at his trial, in August 2016, officers would testify that Shaw consented to a search of the car. (Shaw told me he didn’t.) They also claimed to smell marijuana, although the doors were shut and the windows were up. Shaw’s attorney, Maryland public defender Angela Oetting, said that’s a claim Baltimore cops often use to justify searches of her clients.

The police did not, in fact, find marijuana in the car. But they did claim to find a gun, stashed in the glove compartment. It was a discovery that stunned Shaw, who said he has never owned a gun. “And this was my mom’s car,” he added. He was arrested and charged with two offenses: illegal possession of a handgun and possession of a handgun in a vehicle on a public road, punishable by up to three years in prison.

Police had no evidence, such as fingerprints, to prove the gun was Shaw’s. He didn’t even have a key to the glove compartment; the cops had to smash it open. After less than a half-hour of deliberation, the jury found Shaw innocent on both counts.

But Shaw is still paying for the crime he never committed. He’s on the hook for the $10,000 his family agreed to pay the bail bondsman who got him out of jail two days after his arrest. In Maryland, as in the many other jurisdictions that rely on private bondsmen and a money bail system, bail arrangements are private contracts, unrelated to court outcomes. Innocent, guilty, or charges dropped—as often is the case—the bondsman still collects his fee. “It’s crazy,” Shaw said. But it’s the inevitable result of a privatized pretrial system dependent on a commercial bail-bond industry.

Continue reading at the Atlantic

Minority Retort

In the era of Trump, congressional Democrats should practice “strategic co-opposition.”

Via Washington Monthly

As President Donald Trump takes office and a new Congress dawns, Democrats face what seems to be an insurmountable strategic disadvantage. As the minority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, they lack all the traditional tools for keeping an executive in check: no committee chairmanships, no subpoena power, and no control over the legislative agenda.

But Democrats should still take heart: they’ve been here before and won.

In the fall of 2004, Democrats were also pinned to the mat and flailing. President George W. Bush had just eked out a second-term win, edging out John Kerry. The race came down to a single state—Ohio—and a margin of just 136,000 votes. By the time a devastated Kerry conceded the race to Bush, Republicans had also strengthened their hold on the Senate by four seats—to a fifty-five-member majority—and bolstered their control of the House, outnumbering Democrats 232 to 203.

For an emboldened GOP, the new monopoly on Washington was a golden opportunity to pursue a long-cherished conservative priority: privatizing Social Security. “Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account,” said Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address. Privatization became the top priority of the second-term agenda for Bush, who tasked advisers Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman with crafting a strategy to steamroll the Democratic minority.

But by the summer of 2005, Bush’s grand plan was in tatters. In February, just 35 percent of Americans approved of his handling of Social Security, down from 49 percent at the start of his first term in 2001. In March, Republican pollster Glenn Bolger found that 58 percent of Americans were against the proposed “private accounts.” That fall, the Bush plan died ignominiously. And in 2006, Democrats won back the House and the Senate, upsetting twelve years of GOP domination.

Bush’s Social Security plan did not crash and burn on its own. It was Democrats who steered that plane. As Amy Sullivan chronicled in these pages in May 2006 (“Not as Lame as You Think”), “Day after day, Democrats launched coordinated attacks on Bush’s ‘risky’ proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisan veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.”

In 2005, congressional Democrats were burdened with perceptions of being weak, feckless, and disorganized. No one today would say the same of incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of the wiliest and most aggressive strategists on Capitol Hill, or of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, now battle hardened after so many years playing defense. Whatever outrages Trump might propose, Democrats in Congress can and do have the wherewithal to mount an effective resistance.

The real questions are how often and when.

Contemplating the unique dangers posed by Donald Trump, and remembering the way Barack Obama was treated by the Republicans for the past eight years, many on the left are calling, understandably, for a strategy of pure and total opposition—anything else smacks of Vichy-like collaboration. But that approach is impractical and, in the long run, self-destructive. Rather, the right approach is one of “strategic co-opposition”—an art that Republicans have, in fact, perfected and that Democrats would do well to mimic.

Continue reading at Washington Monthly

How the Internet wrecked college admissions

The ease of applying to dozens of schools with just one click is problematic for students—and universities.

Via the Atlantic and Washington Monthly

Over the last decade, the internet has made it much easier for students to apply to college, especially thanks to services like the “Common App.” For the nearly 700 schools now part of the Common Application—the nation’s leading standardized online college-application portal—students can browse by name, state, or region, by the type of institution (public or private), and by whether it’s co-ed or single-sex. Clicking on a college takes students to a brief profile of the school and then an invitation: “Ready to apply?”

And now that students can apply to more colleges with the click of a few buttons, they are doing exactly that. In 2013, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), 32 percent of college freshmen applied to seven or more colleges—up 10 percentage points from 2008. Almost all of this growth has been online. In the 2015-16 admissions cycle, over 920,000 students used the Common App, more than double the number in 2008–09.

On the one hand, the internet has been good news for college access. Officials at the Common App, for example, say 31 percent of the college applicants who used the portal in 2015–16 were first-generation students. Students and their families are also now smarter consumers of what’s likely to be among the biggest ticket items they will ever buy: a college education. The internet has also been great news for college marketing departments, which can now reach many more students—and more cheaply—than they could via old-fashioned snail mail.

But the growing piles of applications are also causing problems—both for colleges and for students. While schools might welcome the rush of national exposure from a broader pool of prospects, they also increasingly face the problem of sorting out qualified, serious applicants—students who not only have the right academic chops but would actually enroll if accepted—from the scrum. And so long as the sheer volume of applications continues to rise, the odds of colleges’ guessing wrong rise too—which, in fact, is what’s happening, with dire consequences.

Continue reading at the Atlantic