29 August 2013

The Current Cost of Investigating Welfare Fraud isn't Worth It

Just because an idea sounds reasonable and seems to make sense doesn't mean it is good policy. Sometimes a second look is needed.

I also should note that I am triggered to write this post because of an article (The Hand that Feeds You) by Al Jazeera America, and it is refreshing to see a new mainstream media outlet.

The prime example of a policy that sounds reasonable but is actually silly is mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients. It seems so much like common sense - government is subsidizing one's living and should thus check that one is living in accordance with law. Many companies require drug testing for their employees, so why not welfare recipients?

I've not ever worked for an employer that requires drug testing, haven't ever been randomly drug tested in school, so I'm not very familiar with the process. That said, while drug testing by employers is legal and use of drugs may change how certain laws apply, those laws, "[do] not encourage, authorize or prohibit drug tests" (EEOC). This fact weakens the idea, but doesn't completely make it seem unreasonable.

What makes drug testing welfare recipents seem unreasonable is it just doesn't do that much, such that the cost makes one question the resources, time, and effort going into these tests. Drug testing an individual apparently averages about $40 (NC Policy Watch). There are ways to try to avoid this cost, such as Utah using a screening questionnaire to decide who is high risk for drug use, and then only testing those who are high risk. That said, in one year it cost $6,000 for the screening questionnaire, and another $25,000 to test those who are high risk (Desert News). How many people of the 4,730 screened did that $31,000 catch? 12

Florida tried all out testing, only to find that:
Ushered in amid promises that it would save taxpayers money and deter drug users, a Florida law requiring drug tests for people who seek welfare benefits resulted in no direct savings, snared few drug users and had no effect on the number of applications, according to recently released state data (New York Times). 
To be fair, some outlets do report savings, as in savings of $40,800-$98,400 a year for a $178,000,000 program (Tampa Tribune). Oh, and those savings require one to assume that those tested are going to stay on the program for a year, and that we will continue to see 2% rejected a month.

These changes are also coming when we see headlines, like this one in 2011, "Welfare Spending Cut in Half Since Reform" (referring to the reform under President Bill Clinton) which includes charts like this:

Chart from CNN

The program that got me onto this subject, however, was the Al Jazeera America article on food stamp fraud. Here, it would seem to make sense to be stringent about investigating food stamp fraud, but in reality it doesn't make any fiscal sense. For example:
California found potential problems in fewer than 2% of its 150,000 SNAP investigations, costing the state about $35 million to find less than $20 million in wrongful payments... All told, the USDA contributed $126 million, and states spent millions more, for investigators to recover about $115 million. (Al Jazeera America)
So it clearly is costly, but these people who are committing the fraud must be getting absolutely rich off of it, right? Wrong. One study suggests the average income of those convicted of welfare fraud, including the welfare, was just $13,356 (Al Jazeera America). The scholarly article actually gives us a pretty good profile of the fraud:
Most fraud convictions were for unreported income with a median amount of $2,423, which on average, amounted to only $164 per month per household member. This represented part-time earnings of less than five-months’ duration that were scattered over a year or more, suggesting that parents made repeated attempts to plug gaps in inadequate subsistence budgets. For the majority, the fraud conviction was their first offense, and the mean amount of the overpayment was less than $5,000. With 64% receiving no child support, the median income from earnings and other sources—aid plus overpayment—was $1,113 per month. To place this figure in perspective, if defendants had reported all of their income, 73% still would have incomes far enough below the poverty line to continue to qualify for welfare. [emphasis mine] (Swan et al)
It should also be noted that these recipients are jumping through a number of hoops just to qualify, having to go so far as to waive their 4th Amendment rights (Al Jazeera America).

That said, investigating some types of fraud does sometimes make sense. To make the same contrast Al Jazeera does:
Every year, states conduct nearly 450,000 welfare fraud investigations. About 14,000 people are eventually criminally prosecuted for welfare fraud, most of them charged with felonies. (As a comparison, the IRS launches about 5,000 fraud cases each year, and about half of them end in convictions). (Al Jazeera America)
Pre-sequestration, there was a gap between what was owed to the government and what was actually paid (aka tax fraud) of about $400 billion (Politico). The sequester though appears to have cut $267 million from enforcing the tax code, meaning a loss of revenue of around $1.5 billion. The financial return there is extreme and obvious, unlike drug testing welfare recipients (which has a marginal return if you are comfortable making certain assumptions) and investigating welfare fraud (which costs more than it returns). Investigating tax fraud has significant and worthwhile returns.

Oh, and just for a final kicker I leave you with this quote:
Neither SNAP nor TANF adjust eligibility levels based on local costs of living — David’s salary would have been too much whether he lived in McAlester [, Oklahoma] or Queens, New York — and SNAP doesn’t cover a number of household necessities, like soap, toilet paper, pharmaceuticals and diapers. (Al Jazeera America).

28 August 2013

University of Minnesota Falls Short on Gender Neutral Restrooms.

Campus Pride recently released a list of the "Top 25 LGBTQ Friendly Colleges." I proudly attend one of these universities, the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities (This is the flagship campus, and I will use UMN for short). In fact, UMN got a perfect 5/5.

This is a prime example of how far we have to go.

Yes, UMN earns much of praise, as well as the other three Minnesota schools that make the list. Their presence is only natural given the state's record on Queer issues. After all, Minneapolis was the first city to protect on the basis of gender identity. UMN is clearly able to check the vast majority of the boxes, with UMN's report card only giving it a no on, "Accessible, simple process for students to change their name and gender identity on university records and documents." This is definitely an issue (for more than just Trans people), though not my topic for this post.

The "Wabasha Freedom to Marriage Bridge" as it was declared by St Paul Mayor Coleman for the passage of marriage equality in Minnesota. My photo.
One of my pet peeves, and a very simple fix, is a prime example of where UMN gets an easy pass by the surveys of groups like Campus Pride. One simple question is way too easy on campuses:
Does your campus provide gender-neutral/single occupancy restroom facilities in administrative and academic buildings?

This leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, UMN has gender-neutral restroomsThere is one on the same floor as my office. Yet there is a lot more at issue than just having gender neutral bathrooms. What percentage of the buildings have gender neutral bathrooms?  On all of Saint Paul campus, there are only 8 buildings listed with gender neutral restrooms. That is less than half. The next closest gender neutral bathroom to the one near my office is, according to Google Maps, a 0.3 mile walk. Are there single use bathrooms that could be gender neutral but are not? Yet again UMN miserably fails. My building has two single use restrooms on every floor except the first one, and yet there is only one gender neutral restroom in the entire building. 

Image from UW - River Falls
What reason is there to have seven segregated single use bathrooms in one building? From an efficiency standpoint it is nonsensical. People either have to ignore the gender segregation (thus defeating whatever purpose one thinks there is in the segregation), wait, or go to another floor. If the concern is the presence of urinals in some (which is present in the only gender neutral restroom in my entire building and any of the surrounding buildings) or the female hygiene receptacles, a simple sign would quickly clear up that problem. Female hygiene receptacles could be added to the other restrooms if that is a concern, since they are just wall-mounted trash cans. For those bringing up a cleanliness argument, I will just ask since I have heard these kinds of remarks from both men and women, are you worried about male aim or female hovering?

The building that I am discussing, photos from the UMN's Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior department.
This is common sense, and has a profound impact on the environment. What kind of message does it send when only a single restroom in an entire building of single use restrooms is gender neutral? To me it seems more like a checked box than a true attempt to create an inclusive environment. People face really horrible issues due to restrooms. A friend being blocked from entering a bathroom is part of what spurred my activism on the issue, and judging from what I heard far worse has happened.

The lack of widespread gender neutral restrooms also creates a prime zone for anti-Trans bias. Cis-privilege quite likely gives a person like myself the benefit of the doubt when using a single use restroom that somebody perceives is "incorrect." It is likely written off as the other restroom being occupied. Does a person who appears Trans or gender nonconforming get that same benefit of the doubt? Why even create the possibility of these scenarios existing. To be honest, it is sad that even in the cities that first protected gender identity people are still made to feel ashamed and unsafe simply by their choice of restroom. It is even more shameful that the university can't at least make sure all single use restrooms are places that anybody can feel comfortable using (it should be noted here that the American's with Disabilities Act 2010 standards essentially require all new and renovated single sue restrooms to be handicap accessible).

UMN has earned high marks, yet let's not rest on our laurels. There are certainly improvements needed.

21 August 2013

Indiana Has a Chance

On the 9th of May 2011 I wrote a blog post entitled "The Indiana State Legislature is Hurting Us All." Unfortunately, the reason for that post continues to hold. It almost seems as though the Indiana State Legislature has it out for its citizens.

The tyranny of the Indiana state government is even more clear to me after having moved to a state that has likely one of the best state governments currently. Take the budgets as an example. Indiana made a few wise choices to help its finances (such as consolidating prison food purchasing), but many of the decisions have and will hurt the state (cuts to education, illegally cutting family planning, etc). In contrast, Minnesota has a balanced budget and did so while still investing in the state. With a few common sense tax reforms (including a new income tax bracket in a time of increasing income inequality which makes economic sense), smart cuts, and investments in schools and jobs Minnesota was able to balance its budget. It's budget also resulted in a credit outlook upgrade, which had been downgraded due to the tricks former Republican Governor Pawlenty had used to create the appearance of a balanced budget.

The current Minnesota state government got to the position it is now though because it recognized the utter mismanagement the state's Republicans had caused (such as the credit downgrade I previously mentioned). The Republicans also made a huge overreach - namely the voter suppression and marriage discrimination ballot amendments. This had terrified me on election night, but it turned out that Minnesota's voters had recognized the damage these would cause and rejected both. The voter's also showed how tired they were of Republican mismanagement and overreach, and handed the state back to the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party for the first time in 22 years.

Being in Minnesota gives me hope about Indiana. An Indiana government that would actually work for Hoosiers would make the state a model for the nation. Not perfect, but a solid step in the right direction. Hoosiers should not surrender Indiana to those who would do the state harm. Indiana is worth fighting for, and I have seen that. I saw it in the West Lafayette City Council Chambers when the city's Human Relations Ordinance was expanded. I saw it when Hoosiers rejected Republican Senate candidate Murdock's anti-woman, rape-culture laden statements and voted instead for Democratic Senator Donnelly. I saw it at Purdue, which I predict will one day be the most LGBTQ friendly school in the Big Ten (even if it was robbed of the academic president it should have). I see it in the reaction against the non-academic president at Purdue.

Indiana has the chance to start working for Hoosiers instead of against them, and I have hope that Hoosiers will fight for it. That chance, oddly enough, comes from some of the same Republican overreach that occurred in Minnesota - a marriage discrimination amendment.

Today, Freedom Indiana was formed. This group will work to defeat the marriage discrimination amendment. This is a chance for Hoosiers to take back the state. To send the message that enough is enough. Please, sign the petition, like them on Facebook, and start laying the groundwork to take back the state. A number of issues could lead to the take back (such as the education system fraud/corruption), and I think this one holds that potential.

Now I should get back to helping to preserve Minnesota's regional heritage (blog post, article 1, article 2 on that).

19 August 2013

Fall of Men *Eyeroll*

It is incredibly obvious that we live in an andrarchy. Men have a massive power differential over women. The humor of the following is a prime example of this fact:

Image from I Waste So Much Time, content from Saturday Night Live
We can look at every single president of the United States.

Or every Vice President of the United States. Or every Secretary General of the United Nations. Currently only three of the nine Supreme Court justices are women (the most in its history), and only one other woman has ever served on the Supreme Court. Congressional diversity is the highest it has ever been, and by highest for example only 81 of the 435 Representatives are women.

We see gender disparities all over the place, and they are very clear empirically. For example, women experience gender bias in STEM fields:

"Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students"
The gender gap certainly exists in wages, board positions, and CEO positions. This is particularly odd, because:
"Aside from fairness issues, gender pay discrimination is not economically healthy because companies are better off when they have more women in management roles. CNBC quotes a 2011 survey by Catalyst showing that company boards made up of 19 to 44 percent women achieved 26 percent more return on invested capital than those firms with no women board members. It also makes it difficult to recruit women to these high responsibility positions when they know they'll be paid less than their male counterparts." (The Gender Pay Gap: It Affects Us All)
Systematic sexism is real and alive. If men still aren't opening their eyes to the issue, then I'm going to have to pass them on to Greta Christina to give some examples of how men are hurt by the andrarchy and sexism. Some of her articles on the subject include: "How Sexism Hurts Men: 'Undateable'",  "How Sexism Hurts Men, Part 2: Why do I Care", and "5 Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men."

Andarchy is alive.

Yet I see articles like "School has Become Too Hostile to Boys."

I think part of the article is well-taken, namely that zero-tolerance policies rarely make sense. But then there is this part:

"On the other hand, millions of boys are struggling academically. A large and growing male cohort is falling behind in grades and disengaged from school. College has never been more important to a young person’s life prospects, and today boys are far less likely than girls to pursue education beyond high school." ("School has Become Too Hostile to Boys")
My first reaction is to pull a page from Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
"...I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say when there are nine..." After all, as she notes, there have been nine men on the Supreme Court ("Ginsburg Wants to See All Female Supreme Court")
Yet in that same paragraph it get's even crazier, stating:
"As our schools become more risk averse, the gender gap favoring girls is threatening to become a chasm." ("School has Become Too Hostile to Boys")
Yes, there is a gender gap in education. Yet a gap at one level doesn't mean the gap persists throughout the entire system. Women may be higher achieving in primary, secondary, and even post-secondary education, but as I showed before that isn't translating into women gaining an advantage over men. As one report notes:
"In most science disciplines studied, the percentage of women among recent PhD recipients is much higher than their percentage among assistant professors, the typical rank of recently hired faculty. Even in disciplines where women outnumber men earning PhDs, the percentage of assistant professors who are White male is greater than females." (A National Analysis of Diversity in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities)
Women essentially have to outperform men just to be considered equal to them. So even if women are outperforming men in school, that doesn't really change the male-centric system we live in. I also feel the need to point out that these are not biological, but cultural disparities.

I just don't get where I am suppose to feel sorry for men, or to even feel like men are getting left behind. There has been talk about the "Fall of Men," yet I kind of want somebody to explain why I should give this any credence? We live in a society that systematically oppressed women, and that systematic oppression is clear and empirical. I have a hard time seeing any disadvantage a man feels being the result of anything other than the andrarchy that favors said man in the first place (what I mean to say here is you may be able to give examples of men being disadvantaged or underrepresented in an area considered feminine and emasculating men who enter it, but that is still anti-female sexism at play). Anybody want to offer some thoughts?